IN THE LOOP: Fixing a hole

Fri, 08/31/2007 - 8:30pm
Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.

Fixing a utility construction hole, a seemingly simple activity, can turn out to be frustrating. No matter how select your fill is, how small your compaction layers are, how much you tamp, and whether you crown the fill, you’ll come back the next Thomas G. Robinsonday and the restored area will still have sunk. You’ll be revisiting that hole more times than you care to remember before the restoration is successful. Developing interoperable, broadband, public safety communications, even in the wake of the effort expended since 9/11, has been somewhat like fixing that proverbial hole. Despite pursuing alternatives including Wi-Fi implementations, 4.9 GHz systems, and extensive use of enhanced broadband over cellular systems, the hole is still far from fixed.

In its recently promulgated Second Report and Order concerning 700 MHz Rules, the FCC has developed what it hopes is a master fix of the current holes in interoperable, public safety broadband services. Specifically, the FCC has developed a nationwide framework for a public/private partnership to operate the spectrum allocated for public safety broadband use within the 700 MHz band (specifically, 10 MHz in two 5 MHz blocks, between 763 MHz and 768 MHz, and 793 MHz and 798 MHz). A Public Safety Broadband Licensee (PSBL) will be the entity charged with management and oversight of the public safety users and uses of the nationwide system. The private, commercial partner will be the commercial licensee of the adjacent 10 MHz “Upper D” block (10 MHz, divided into two 5 MHz blocks from 758-763 MHz and 788-793 MHz). The commercial licensee will build the nationwide system and support its technical operation. It will be authorized to provide commercial services in the Upper D block, as well as have pre-emptible, secondary access to the public safety broadband spectrum when it isn’t being utilized for public safety applications. Similarly, under the partnership, the PSBL will have priority access to the adjacent Upper D commercial spectrum in times of emergency. The FCC indicates that development of a public/private partnership for this purpose, will, based on shared infrastructure, help achieve cost efficiencies while maximizing nationwide public safety access to an interoperable broadband system.

The details of how this all will work will be in a Network Sharing Agreement (NSA) that the FCC indicates must be negotiated by the private, commercial partner with the PSBL and then approved by the FCC. As the FCC currently envisions it, there will be a 10-year timeframe to provide truly nationwide accessibility to the public safety system and cost-effective service fees will be established for the public safety entities to utilize the network. This will all be part of the NSA and will be governed by FCC rules. The Commission indicates that its chief aim overall is to facilitate effective communications among first responders from various disciplines and different jurisdictions so that they can work together in all manner of public safety scenarios.

With its ruling, the FCC has developed a concept that is supported by a number of public safety organizations across the country. However, the devil will certainly be in the details of how the auction proceeds, who the licensees are, how the public/private partnership is actually developed, how the PSBL works with numerous public safety entities and how effective actual utilization of the system is in the future. Based on the experiences of public safety entities that are already pursuing broadband and interoperable communications, there are several critical elements that the prospective public/private partnership will need to keep in mind:

True local (and beyond) interoperability – Just like politics, all public safety is essentially local. This means that however the nationwide system connects the threads together, it has to ensure that local responders are able to simultaneously maintain critical broadband access within their organizations, connect to closely allied local organizations (such as between local police, fire, sheriff’s and emergency medical personnel) and easily bridge any larger jurisdictional boundaries when necessary. This type of interoperability hasn’t heretofore been easily achieved.

Applications – Information received from a cross section of public safety entities indicates that for any broadband system to be most useful, it has to provide enough capacity for high bandwidth applications such as video. In fact, video is often mentioned as the number-one new service that would best benefit first responders dealing with large scale incident management.

Costs – Public safety entities have expressed concern about the high cost of accessing new systems, including costs for new end user equipment, maintenance, upgrades, training and service fees. The partnership will have to be mindful of keeping the cost reasonable for access to the system.

By law, the FCC must commence the 700 MHz auction by January 28, 2008. Between now and then, there will be much speculation about where public safety will truly end up after all is said and done. —Editor’s note: CBG’s Senior Engineer,
Dick Nielsen, contributed to this column.


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