Connecting the nation’s public safety agencies via an interoperable wireless system may seem like a fairly basic proposition, especially for a nation as technologically advanced as the U.S. But for more than a decade, a national system has proved unattainable — the effort has stalled time and again in Congress.
The promise of a national system is in the limelight once again, just shy of the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, which brought into tragic focus that police officers and firefighters from various jurisdictions were unable to communicate with one another as they responded to the attacks at the Pentagon and the felled World Trade Center. The same problem was demonstrated again in 2005 in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast.
The Barack Obama administration is trying to give the effort a needed boost. Officials recently unveiled a proposal to commit $10.7 billion for the creation of a nationwide broadband network for public safety officials. The system would allocate space in the 700 MHz broadband spectrum — dubbed the “D Block” — that public safety would use both in day-to-day operations, and also during an emergency event.
The money will potentially come from auctioning airwaves surrendered by television broadcasters, estimated to bring in $27.8 billion. Five billion will help rural Americans get mobile access to high-speed Internet service, $3 billion will go to research and development and the leftover $9.6 billion will be allocated to reducing federal deficit.
The FCC has yet to set all the network’s standards and the regulations for how it would be built, which could take years to complete.
Proponents say today’s patchwork of communication systems, which has been in development over the past 50 years, generally involves two-way radio as the sole means of communication and the narrowband spectrum that’s currently allocated to police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers. Public safety agencies say this is inadequate, limits effectiveness and delays response times during emergencies.
“With this proposal, everything would be built upon a single standard of long term evolution technology, and it would have to be interoperable,” said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the communications and technology committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “It will be more reliable; it will be more controlled. The part of the network controlled by public safety won’t be subject to crowding and dead spots that normal commercial networks have.”
The network would allow streaming video, text messaging, diagrams and GPS applications, which McEwen said wouldn’t be a replacement or alternative to today’s radio voice system. If a police officer or firefighter is trapped in a basement and can’t get a signal from the network tower, “he’s got to be able to talk from his unit out to someone in the street and tell them he needs help,” said McEwen. “This new broadband [system] doesn’t have that capability,” he said.
However, he said future iterations of the broadband network will most likely have voice capabilities, which could eventually replace the entire radio system.
The wireless public safety network would be hardened to withstand natural hazards, and would include backup power with fuel supplies that could withstand long-term power outages. The system would also feature nationwide roaming capabilities between local, state and federal public safety agencies; and access to satellite service where terrestrial service doesn’t exist or is out of service.
That laundry list of features sounds promising, but government officials concede that building the system remains a complicated endeavor — just as it was a decade ago. Major decisions remain unresolved.
At a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 16, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation examined the issue of a public safety network, as legislators are introducing various proposals outside of Obama’s federal proposal.
Public safety representatives testified in favor of establishing the network, but concerns surfaced about whether the nonprofit Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) should partner with various commercial carriers to build out the 20 MHz network as a shared project, or have the federal government fund the entire project and give public safety the complete rights.
The issue of what entity controls the network was of interest in 2008 when the FCC attempted to auction off the D Block spectrum to wireless carriers to build a network. The plan then was to give emergency workers priority access only during of emergencies. That attempt was met with dismay from the public safety community, many of whom feared they wouldn’t have adequate network capacity during emergencies. Regardless, the auction failed when the D Block wasn’t sold, causing further delays of the network’s development.
Public safety organizations believe there are risks in conducting another D Block auction and that there’s a better chance the network will be built if public safety stakeholders hold the license for the spectrum. As a group, public safety officials favor having complete rights to the network, McEwen said, so they can locally manage any emergencies and day-to-day occurrences.
“When the FCC proposed auctioning the D Block for commercial use and then giving priority access to public safety for a fee, governors, legislators, county officials and mayors joined with police and fire chiefs to say ‘no,’” said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell on behalf of the National Governors Association, during Senate testimony on Wednesday. “In our opinion, if we are to build the system that our first responders need and our citizens expect, we have got to begin by making the reallocation of the D Block the cornerstone of our efforts to develop and deploy a national interoperable broadband network.”
However, funding remains an issue, as this project is estimated to cost billions of dollars that some Congress members are hesitant to shovel out if the private commercial carriers don’t contribute.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a former wireless telecom executive, said of a bill proposed by West Virginia Sen. John Rockefeller, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, “I am concerned that the construction costs of the network is much higher than what’s built into the plan.” Warner suggested that some kind of public-private partnership should be on the table, which was not met with opposition from public safety representatives in attendance. He also suggested that public safety could sell any abundant narrowband spectrum and use the money to fund wireless networks.
However, public safety officials testified that the investment in the wireless network would be cost-effective in the long run. Officials said the money would have to be spent at some point to maintain and upgrade the current radio system.
“It works pretty well under the circumstances,” said McEwen of the current system. “But you can’t build a nationwide network in today’s land mobile environment; it’s just impossible.”
Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.