The big bang
For longtime public-safety officials, news of the D Block legislation being passed elicited some emotional responses.
“It’s a big, big deal,” McEwen said. “The D Block allocation was the main thrust of our efforts, because we needed more than 10 MHz to take advantage of new technology like LTE to deliver the kind of mobile experience to public safety that we need.”
Robert LeGrande, a consultant who oversaw the deployment of the first public-safety broadband project while serving as chief technology officer for Washington, D.C., echoed this sentiment.
“It’s been a long, long, long time — since 2003, when we first started talking about this,” he said. “I’m so proud of our leadership, administration and Congress for finding a way to get this done — it was not easy. It was a long, arduous process, but I am proud of the effort.”
With the D Block, public safety has 20 MHz of contiguous broadband spectrum, which is considered ideal in the LTE world to efficiently provide the high-speed throughput needed to enable bandwidth-intensive data applications, images and real-time video.
However, while $7 billion in federal funding is an unprecedented figure for public safety, it is not enough to pay for a nationwide LTE deployment by itself. Rockefeller acknowledged that the funding level is not as high as he would like, but it is a significant step in the right direction.
“When you put $7 billion into a buildout of something of this nature, the public — if not the whole country — instantly and absolutely understands what is going on, so you can’t stop it,” Rockefeller said during a press conference. “The point was to start it to the extent that you couldn’t stop it. And we did that.”
One way public safety hopes to maximize the existing funding and to minimize the need for additional federal dollars is to seek partnerships with other potential users. Language in the new law appears to allow such deals to occur, and they will be needed to get the job done, McEwen said.
Several governmental entities already have indicated that they would like to provide their entire governmental enterprises — not just traditional public-safety personnel — access to the new LTE network to enhance interoperability and streamline networking responsibilities. In addition, there have been increased discussions recently between other critical-infrastructure entities to allow them to access the proposed network to support important initiatives such as the smart grid and intelligent transportation systems.
While not traditionally considered to be part of public safety, the ability to communicate reliably with these critical-infrastructure entities often is vital to being able to respond effectively to an emergency situation, whether that situation calls for the evacuation of nearby residents or determining whether a utility can provide power to a critical location, Mirgon said.
Indeed, it is frustrating that critical-infrastructure entities such as utilities are not treated more like first responders at key junctures, Mirgon said.
“A number of times, I have been out at a major gas-line break. You’ve rolled out [public safety], this gas line is spewing natural gas, you’re evacuating people, you call dispatch and say, ‘We need the gas company. Would you call them?’ The phone’s busy, because they’re getting calls from other people. When you finally get them … the gas company says it will be there in 45 minutes, because it’s on the other side of town. Meanwhile, this thing could still blow up.
“Now, I ran Code 3 through red lights and stop signs and around traffic to protect people. The fire department did the same thing to protect people. But the one guy who can shut it off is stopped at the red light with no traffic around. I get the fact that they’re not first responders, but it’s also kind of absurd that the people who can fix the problem aren’t treated like first responders in those very unique scenarios.”
Being part of the public-safety nationwide network could help alleviate the communications issues, which have been underlined during the nuclear power-plant threat in Japan and by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Moreover, both Mirgon and McEwen noted that such partners can bring other assets — rights of way, fiber for backhaul and additional funding — that could make the network more reliable, robust and economical.
By almost all accounts, the process of pushing Congress to pass legislation regarding the D Block and LTE network funding demonstrated that the communication within the upper echelons of public safety never has been greater.
“I’ve been involved in public safety since the ’60s, and I’ve been in rooms where police chiefs and fire chiefs won’t talk to each other,” mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said. “All of that has gone by the wayside for the common good.”
Whether the PSA will continue to exist now that the D Block legislation has passed is being discussed — as of press time, McEwen said it is too early to tell what the fate of the coalition will be. Regardless what happens with the PSA, Werner said that he is hopeful public-safety officials will maintain the relationship established during this process.
“There are so many things we have yet to do, and we’ve learned that our influence is exponential when we’re together,” Werner said. “I think you’re going to see a continuation of this along other efforts. It may not be as intense, and it may be focused on specific things, but I think the relationships have forged in different ways.
“I think one of the unintended positive consequences is that it created a unity in public safety that we have never seen before.”