FCC Waivers and Funding Could Fuel Nationwide Public Safety Network

A window of broadband technology grants is open exclusively to jurisdictions receiving waivers.

by / May 18, 2010

The FCC took a significant step toward building a nationwide public safety network last week by clearing the way for 21 cities, counties and states to begin building their own fourth-generation wireless networks.

The commission gave conditional approval on May 12 to waiver requests from New Jersey, Los Angeles County, Boston and 18 others to start creating 4G networks known as Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks. These networks could begin to form a nationwide interoperable wireless network that has been sought by public safety officials since Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.

"I think it is going to have a very profound effect upon our ability to get a nationwide network because if we can get some of these early build-out cities or regions or states done, we'll get some early lessons and learn what works and what doesn't," said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit designated by the FCC to guide construction of the national wireless network for first responders.

The FCC's National Broadband Plan calls for creating a nationwide public safety network within the 700 MHz D Block of radio spectrum formerly used by television broadcasters. In 2008, the commission attempted to auction the D Block spectrum to commercial telecom providers, with the winner required to build a nationwide network and share it with public safety agencies. But there were no takers, and a new D Block auction isn't expected until 2011.

The LTE networks approved last week will use 10 MHz of spectrum that public safety was granted in 1997. But the FCC required that the new networks be compatible with the proposed national D Block 700 MHz network. To ensure interoperability, the commission has set numerous conditions on its approval of the petitions:

  • Agencies must work with the recently established Emergency Response Interoperability Center to ensure interoperability with the rest of the network as it is built.
  • The networks must be built using the next-generation mobile communication standard LTE, which the major carriers have agreed to support in the build out of their 4G networks.
  • Public safety agencies building networks must participate in network testing sponsored by the Public Safety Communications Research Program and Washington, D.C.
  • The agencies must provide all public safety agencies inside their coverage areas access to the networks. Several states were granted permission to build networks and would be required to provide access to local law enforcement agencies under the commission's rules.

The FCC also required petitioners to have funding in place to build the networks.

Building out a nationwide broadband network for public safety use is estimated to cost between $6.5 billion and $20 billion depending on the timing of how the network is built out and the government's ability to leverage commercial carriers' investments, said FCC spokesman Robert Kenny. The FCC has requested that Congress appropriate $6.5 billion to help fund the network, and a user fee of between 50 cents to $1.00 levied on broadband connections has been proposed to support the network's build out.

As a result of the commission's action last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will accept funding applications from agencies granted waivers from June 1, 2010, to July 1, 2010. The NTIA noted in a news release that these jurisdictions had been discouraged from applying for Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grants because they lacked the legal authority to use the spectrum.

The amount of funds that would be made available wasn't specified.

Jurisdictions have already begun contacting the PSST to begin working with the trust on moving forward, McEwen said during a phone interview following a meeting with officials on May 13 in Seattle.

The PSST formed an Operator Advisory Committee to ensure that the waiver applicants' plans are coordinated with the national strategy. "We will be mapping out a forward moving strategy to keep this going fairly quickly with these waiver applicants, because there are things they can't do without us and I don't want to hold that up," McEwen said.