Recently the FCC endorsed long term evolution (LTE) as the required standard for any government participating in the budding nationwide interoperable public safety wireless network. In 2007, the FCC issued a single license for all public safety agencies to jointly operate such a network within 12 MHz of spectrum in the upper 700 MHz band. The license is held by the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, a nonprofit formed to lobby for the regulatory victories necessary to make the national network a reality. The FCC usually avoids mandating standards, but it made an exception in this case.

The National Broadband Plan the FCC submitted to Congress in 2010 mandated that the public safety network be interoperable, and FCC officials said interoperability wouldn’t be realistic without a single standard. LTE is popularly referred to as a 4G standard, although it doesn’t actually meet the speed requirements for 4G, which are 100 Mbps for both downloads and uploads, according to the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. While LTE generates 100 Mbps for downloads, it only facilitates 50 Mbps for uploads. Nevertheless, the FCC views LTE as being close enough to 4G to make significant improvements for public safety. Of the 12 MHz the FCC designated for public safety, 10 MHz can be used for broadband. Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, said endorsing LTE made sense because a large portion of the 700 MHz band was already occupied by AT&T and Verizon, which are deploying LTE networks. Public safety agencies that are building their own LTE network would open a cost-saving opportunity, McEwen said. They can buy mass-produced devices made by Verizon and AT&T.

“We will be able to take advantage of the economies of scale to buy devices that are commonly off-the-shelf devices that are manufactured in huge numbers,” McEwen said.

An obstacle to deploying the network still remains, however. The bulk of public safety officials insist their current allotment of 10 MHz of broadband spectrum is not enough to give public safety the coverage it needs. They say they’ll have enough spectrum if Congress gives them an additional 10 MHz of spectrum called the D Block, which is set to be auctioned to private providers. McEwen and others are lobbying Congress aggressively for the D Block, but caution that if Congress gives the D Block to public safety, it must include a funding stream to pay for local network equipment.

McEwen said giving the D Block to public safety wouldn’t make sense without that funding because insufficient state and local tax revenue exists to pay for the local networks. President Barack Obama recently voiced his support for giving the D Block and equipment funding to public safety. Bills for making that a reality have been proposed in both houses of Congress, but it remains to be seen how deficit hawks in the House of Representatives will react. Auctioning the D Block to private providers would generate between $2 billion to $3 billion for the U.S. Treasury Department, according to some estimates. McEwen says the approaching 10-year anniversary of 9/11 could give public safety lobbyists an advantage. Politicians, McEwen said, would not want to face voters at that time saying they hadn’t accomplished an interoperable public safety communications plan ready for deployment.

Andy Opsahl  |  Features Editor