Infrastructure exists for interoperable safety network, CEO says

The recent Federal Communications Commission plan for setting aside some radio frequency spectrum for the commercial construction of a new broadband public safety network was fatally flawed, according to the chief executive officer of a company that builds public safety networks.

'The business model doesn't work,' said Declan Ganley of Rivada Networks. The builder of such a public-private sector network would be competing against established networking behemoths such as Verizon and AT&T, who dominated the recent auction of the 700 MHz band. 'This is a trillion-dollar industry. No public safety entity could ever spend that kind of money to build a network,' Ganley said yesterday at a discussion in Washington on public safety networking hosted by the Progress and Freedom Foundation.

The need for advanced interoperable communications for the nation's first responders is real, Ganley added. New York City firefighters responding to the 2001 terrorist attacks had communications capabilities 'little better than what our people had on Omaha Beach in 1944,' and the situation has not improved much since, Ganley said.

Ganley proposed that rather than building a new network, public safety agencies should be allowed to use the capabilities already available in commercial networks.

'When you want to get a fire truck from point A to point B, you don't build a new highway,' he said. 'You use the highway that is already there. It makes sense to leverage off the infrastructure that is already there.'

Taking advantage of existing networks would let agencies use existing tools, such as cell phones, mobile e-mail, and data and video devices on networks that already are interoperable. This would be more efficient than requiring a separate network and equipment dedicated exclusively to disaster response, Ganley said.

'The things you're using every day should be the things you bring with you to the disaster area,' he said.

Last month, FCC auctioned off most of the available 700 MHz band, raising more than $19 billion. But a 10 MHz swath called the D Block, set aside for a single nationwide license that would have required the build-out of a network in cooperation with the public safety community, failed to sell. The future of the D Block and plans for public safety networking are being debated in Washington and the public safety community.

FCC is likely to offer a new auction, but on what terms has not been decided. Most observers agree that the reserve price set for the D Block was too high considering the stiff restrictions that would have accompanied the license. Options include offering the spectrum at a lower price, changing the business requirements or selling it for commercial use and passing the money to public safety agencies.

This last option is the one favored by Ganley. 'Take some of that spectrum and sell it for as many dollars as you can get for it, with as few restrictions around it as possible, and give some of that money to the public safety agencies. Let them cut their own deals' with existing networks, he said.

That is the model Rivada uses in its offerings. It provides rapid-deployment equipment to extend the reach and coverage of commercial networks and replace them locally when infrastructure is destroyed during a disaster. Customers, which include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Guard Bureau and first responders in 17 states, negotiate their own agreements with commercial carriers to get the necessary bandwidth and access priorities.

Building a separate public safety network is possible but not practical, Ganley said.

'Guys like me will be happy to do it, but we are going to guarantee that we make as much money as possible in process,' he said.

He said Rivada considered bidding on the D Block but decided against it.

'We looked, and we couldn't make the numbers work,' he said. Other potential bidders came to the same conclusion.

The owner of the D Block network would be a new entrant competing against established incumbents with much greater financial resources in every market, he said. Companies such as Verizon and AT&T routinely spend $3 billion or $4 billion a year upgrading their networks, ensuring that the public safety network would always be outdated.

Ganley dismissed questions about the reliability and capacity of commercial networks during an emergency.

'I have felt for quite a while that spectrum is a solution looking for a problem,' he said. Use of commercially available spectrum is becoming more efficient, and additional reliability and coverage could be ensured with the use of equipment such as that provided by Rivada, he said. Existing spectrum already set aside for public safety use could be used locally as needed to provide capacity and functionality.

The largest roadblock to federal funding for local communications needs is that Congress would have to legislate some mechanism for raising and distributing the money.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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