Tom Ridge has been a longtime advocate for the creation of a nationwide network for public safety agencies to operate on. The lack of public safety’s ability to communicate across agencies was brought to the United States’ attention more than 10 years ago during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As the first secretary for the DHS, Ridge witnessed the fallout from that day and took on the role as a supporter of the network’s creation.

Last year, Government Technology reported on how much interoperability has increased and how far along the creation of the nationwide public safety network was — at the time, the answer was that there hadn’t been significant changes. “The technology exists, the capability exists, but what is lacking — what is sadly lacking, what is tragically lacking, what is shamefully lacking — is the political will to build this system,” Ridge told Government Technology in mid-2011.

But there is finally some good news to report: On Feb. 22, President Barack Obama signed into law payroll-tax-cut legislation that reallocated the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety. The legislation also provided $7 billion in federal grants for the creation and build out of the network. While there is much celebrating in the public safety community, there may be a long road ahead for the actual rollout of the network. “It’s one of those situations where we have good news and more news,” Ridge said. “I wouldn’t say bad news — it’s a very important first step, but this is going to be a long journey I’m afraid.”

Government Technology interviewed Ridge to get more information about the spectrum reallocation and what’s ahead.

Why do you think it’s going to be such a long journey?

I think all the analysis suggests that it’s going to take several years to build out the network and I must say this candidly, since there are several federal entities that will be involved in planning and overseeing the buildout, that’s an absolute guarantee that this will move with glacial-like speed. One of the challenges I think for the public safety community, which is understandably very very grateful for the reallocation of spectrum, is to try to stay on top of the entities involved in this planning to get them to operate on a continuing sense of urgency. We don’t want another 10 years to elapse before we have the full capability.

Do you have any suggestions for how public safety agencies can be involved in the process?

I think one of the most important avenues for them will be to work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to make certain that they’re part of the governing structure. … They’re just going to have to keep everyone on task and I think that’s very important.

As a longtime advocate for the need for this public safety network, can you address how significant this news is and what your reaction was to it?

I was delighted, excited and grateful. But I am a realist when it comes to the need to now go about the business of construction. So I can only say that as a longtime advocate, I am grateful that the Congress of the Unites States finally worked its will, finally adopted one of the most important recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, and I am hopeful that the same Congress will do everything it can to expedite the development of the network itself.

The bill provides $7 billion in federal funding for the construction and deployment of the national network; do you have suggestions for how the rest of the funding can be obtained?

I wish I did. I guess based on what I read, most people believe that grant funding won’t be sufficient for the total buildout and presently am at a loss for how they get the balance. But before I worry about the balance, I am hopeful that the FCC will commence the spectrum auction that will generate this revenue so that they can at least start building it out. I don’t think we need the entire sum in order to start the process, so as soon as the spectrum options occur and they generate a decent amount of income, they better work on developing the public-private partnerships necessary with the national wireless providers, they’re going to need to resolve questions of governance. I think the challenge, now that the spectrum has been allocated is to move along multiple parallel paths — governance, finance, the partnerships, etc. — necessary to actually begin developing the network.

Are there any other challenges that you see in the future?

Not immediately, but I think obviously they are going to have to develop standards so that the private network and the public network are able to provide and share voice, video and data. There are a lot of technological standards that have to be developed at this point in time. As the system evolves, making sure that public safety gets access immediately when needed. The other challenge is that it’s going to take a little while to build out the national network, and so for the time being they’re going to have to use existing communications systems, there may be some challenges associated with integrating existing systems into the buildout.

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.