First responders lobby Congress for more spectrum on safety network

A coalition of public safety organizations has kicked off a campaign to convince Congress to allocate an additional 10 MHz of radio spectrum allocated for a planned national public safety communications network.

A 10-MHz swath of spectrum in the 700 MHz band freed up by last year’s switch to digital TV broadcasting already has been set aside for the nationwide network for first responders. But public safety officials said the additional bandwidth is necessary to create a robust, high-speed network capable of handling multiple kinds of data, as well as video and voice traffic.

The 9-11 Commission called for such a network in the wake of the terrorist attacks in  2001.

“Eight years later, we still do not have the ability to communicate with each other,” San Jose, Calif., Police Chief Robert Davis, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said at press conference in Washington. “That is unacceptable.”

Current communications systems for law enforcement, fire departments and other emergency first responders primarily are voice radio systems built piecemeal that do not interoperate across departmental or jurisdictional lines.

“Today, we solve interoperability through a number of patches and links that are like nothing so much as a patchwork quilt,” said Richard Mirgon, president of the Association of Public Safety Communication Officers. Losing the additional spectrum could jeopardize the opportunity to create a single, interoperable network that would enable nationwide roaming, he added.

The spectrum in question is two 5-MHz chunks called the D-block that has been in limbo since it failed to attract a suitable commercial bidder in a Federal Communications Commission public auction. The D-block consists of the 758-763 MHz spectrum and the 788-793 MHz spectrum. These are adjacent to two 5-MHz pieces of spectrum already dedicated to the planned public safety network.

What that network will look like is not known, because it has not yet been built or designed.

“The current thinking is that it probably will be a series of regional partners rather than one nationwide network,” said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corp., which holds the nationwide license for the public safety spectrum.

The public safety community has endorsed the emerging Long Term Evolution standard for advanced cellular communications as the preferred technology. McEwen said that decision was based not on functionality, but on the fact that major carriers are adopting that technology for their advanced networks.

Although the D-block is potentially worth billions of dollars for commercial development, the problem at auction apparently was the condition that the licensee would have to enter into a sharing agreement with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust. No commercial developers were willing to pay for a license without knowing in advance the conditions that would be attached to it.

The failure of the D-block to find a licensee also put the public safety spectrum in limbo because its use was dependent on the sharing agreement.

The Public Safety Spectrum Trust would like to have the license to the D-block outright to support an advanced fourth generation (4G) digital voice and data network, McEwen said.

“We hold a license for 5-by-5,” meaning 5 MHz for uploading and another 5 MHz for downloading, McEwen said in an interview with GCN. “The experts say we can do LTE with 5-by-5. But anybody who is planning to use LTE will be using 10-by-10. We believe we need 10-by-10.”

The FCC is expected to offer its recommendations for the D-block in its National Broadband Plan, now under development. That plan is due to Congress by Feb. 17, but the FCC has asked for a 30-day extension. The Commission’s ability to turn the block over for public safety use is limited by law, which at this time calls for a private sector licensee and a sharing agreement.

Changing that requirement would require legislative action, which the public safety community is now urging. Members of a number of professional organizations spent the day talking with members of FCC and Congress to make their point.

“We are profoundly disappointed that Congress and the president have not acted” to secure the band for public safety, Davis said.

Organizations taking part in the effort include the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and several more public safety-related associations. Communications companies that support public safety allocation of the D-block include ATT Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Motorola, Harris and Alcatel Lucent.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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