D.C. enters battle for radio spectrum

'We're putting it to limited use,' D.C. deputy CTO Robert LeGrande says of a high-speed, wireless first-responders' network being tested.

J. Adam Fenster

At a Capitol Hill demonstration last month, the District of Columbia launched a yearlong, $27 million pilot of a high-speed, wireless video and data network for first responders. City officials also used the occasion to promote a campaign to secure the additional radio frequency spectrum required for similar public safety projects.

'We simply don't have enough spectrum to make this kind of network available on a nationwide basis,' Washington chief technology officer Suzanne Peck told an audience of legislators.

Washington is a founding member of the Spectrum Coalition for Public Safety, an advocacy group trying to get more RF spectrum for new public safety applications such as broadband networking.

'The tools already exist' for such applications, said coalition member Lt. Charles Smith of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. 'To build the network, we need spectrum.'

That spectrum would come from the 700-MHz band now used for analog television broadcasting. Congress has promised public safety organizations a 24-MHz swath of the band when broadcasters switch to digital TV.

The coalition considers it too little, too late.

Decades-long delay

Congress originally set a Dec. 31, 2006, deadline for digital TV conversion, but only if at least 85 percent of households in a market can receive digital broadcasts.Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael K. Powell has told Congress that the exception could delay availability of the band for decades.

The 24 MHz already earmarked for public safety is used for lower-speed applications, said D.C. deputy CTO Robert LeGrande. The coalition wants an additional 10 MHz to support high-speed applications such as those demonstrated in Washington.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sponsored S 2820, the Save Lives Act, with a firm Dec. 31, 2008, deadline for the transition to digital TV plus $1 billion to help low-income viewers obtain equipment. That fund, as well as equipment grants to public safety groups, would come from the $30 billion to $40 billion expected from a commercial auction of the remaining spectrum.

McCain's bill also calls for a study of future public safety needs by the FCC and the Homeland Security Department.

'If our nation's first responders need more spectrum to do their work safely, then Congress should ensure that more spectrum is available,' McCain said in introducing the bill.

The 9-11 Commission's final report recommended the 'expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes.'

But the broadcast industry is balking at a firm deadline and seeking amendments to allow exceptions and to keep portions of the 700-MHz band in broadcasters' hands much longer.

Washington's wireless broadband network, which is separate from the region's data-only Capital Wireless Integrated Network, operates under an 18-month experimental license granted by the FCC in March. D.C. awarded contracts in December 2003 to systems integrator Motorola Inc. and Flarion Technologies Inc. of Bedminster, N.J. to build the network.

Flarion provided RadioRouters, or packet-switched base stations that route signals between mobile users and the city's OC-48 fiber optic-based DC-Net network. The scheme uses a mobile air interface technology known as fast, low-latency access with seamless handoff-orthogonal frequency division multiplexing. FLASH-OFDM wireless network cards are available for notebook computers and handhelds, and chip sets for cellular phones should be ready next year.

More coming

One D.C. base station has been operational since March. Nine more, covering the entire city, are undergoing acceptance tests. The maximum download speed is 1.5 Mbps, but users experience about 1 Mbps. Uplink speed is 300 Kbps to 500 Kbps, with bursts up to 900 Kbps.

The current configuration gives on-street coverage, LeGrande said. Another 15 to 20 base stations could enable in-building coverage through most of the city, he said.

'We're putting it to limited use,' LeGrande said. The first six months of the pilot will test functionality, maintenance and security. During the final six months, the network will grow to include to more users.

Applications in the pilot focus on video and data. The Washington demonstration included wireless broadcasts of live and recorded video to Capitol Hill. Although a video feed from a police helicopter occasionally broke up, live video from a stationary U.S. Park Police car was clear and smooth.

In other cities, tests of wireless networks have shown that access to video and data in the field can cut down on the need for conventional voice communication. Until Washington reaches that point, it has invested $40 million to upgrade a separate, existing voice radio network for coverage inside buildings and in subway tunnels.

Legislators at the demonstration joined the call for more public safety bandwidth.

Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) said, 'It's a no-brainer. We ought to make it available.'

D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton called action on the Save Lives bill 'something we must do before the Congress goes home.'

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the bill Sept. 22, but with an amendment from Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) that would suspend the 2008 deadline for reclaiming the bandwidth in places where it would cause consumer disruption.

The amendment, approved over McCain's objections, could effectively pull the act's teeth.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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