“Reallocation is the best way to ensure that public safety has the leverage to incentivize the public-private partnerships and network-sharing arrangements that are essential to constructing a nationwide broadband network,” said Rep. Henry Waxman at a legislative hearing in July to address spectrum and public safety issues. “Moreover, reallocation allows us to plan for public safety’s transition to broadband.”

The PSA and other public safety groups support S.911: Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2011, a bill that includes allocating the D Block of the 700 MHz band to public safety and establishing framework for deployment of a national wireless broadband network. Mirgon said a key part of S.911 calls for a governing body to oversee the network’s deployment. “In many areas, such as rural areas, it’s going to be a bit challenging, and there’s going to have to be partnerships built with people and infrastructure,” he said, “and that includes local government, state government, utilities and commercial.”

Other bills also seek to fill the gap, including Rep. Peter King’s Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011, which also calls for allocation of the D Block for first responders. Currently the FCC proposes to auction the D Block to commercial interests with the stipulation that the winning bidder form a public-private partnership under the direction of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corp., a nonprofit consisting of public safety groups.

Ridge said he was glad to see that the topic’s being discussed in both chambers, “but there just seems to not be momentum.”

New York’s Approach to Interoperability

 The inability to communicate between agencies has long been an issue for first responders, but 9/11 highlighted the problem, particularly in New York. To advance interoperability, the state created the Office of Interoperable and Emergency Communications (OIEC) — within the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security — in 2010 to give assistance and guidance to counties. A state grant program began in fiscal 2010-2011 with $20 million appropriated to help fund county interoperability projects. “The approach is to achieve a network of networks and encourage counties and local jurisdictions to partner to find the best solution to communicate with each other and first responders,” said Robert Barbato, OIEC’s deputy director.

As part of the competitive grant process, counties must be a member of a public safety communications consortium, identify who else benefits from the system and explain how it furthers their capability to provide interoperable communications in compliance with the federal SAFECOM program, a practitioner-driven initiative that works with all government levels.

But the OIEC doesn’t want agencies to necessarily put interoperability ahead of daily needs. The Statewide Communications Interoperability Plan says, “New York realizes that interoperability is not necessarily an indicator of adequate operability.”

“Counties tell us interoperability is a logical goal and it’s a priority for state and federal government, but many of us need to build out our capacity for routine stuff as well,” Barbato said.

To measure progress, the OIEC asked counties to do a self-assessment against the SAFECOM Interoperability Continuum, which includes governance, technology, training and usage. The OIEC plans to have counties reassess in 2011, and it’ll follow up with audits and interviews.

Sticker Shock

Billions of dollars have been poured into interoperability during the last decade, but lack of money is another issue holding the national network back. Ridge said there’s concern about the system’s expense — in the National Broadband Plan, the FCC estimated that the network would require up to $6.5 billion in capital expenditures over 10 years — but that money should be focused on this project because it enhances public safety and national security.

Scarce funding is hindering progress, Mirgon said, but it’s not just impacting the federal government’s efforts. Public safety agencies typically replace their equipment every 10 to 20 years, but technology is changing much faster than that. “There’s not enough money to keep up with technology, nor is technology cost-effective because of those proprietary networks,” Mirgon said.

And just having technology isn’t enough; agencies must train responders how to use it.

For example, Los Angeles trains responders on the interoperability devices every month, he said. “They actually take them out, set them up and train on them to ensure that they are current and familiar with them so they operate when they need them. That’s a lot of time, energy and manpower resources that most agencies don’t have to spare.”

The problem is even worse in areas where bridges, gateways and other interoperability devices have been implemented to connect incompatible proprietary technologies, Mirgon said. “In many cases, they are too complex to operate.”

10 Years Later

Even though much work remains before responders can talk and exchange data over a nationwide network, headway has been made. Regional communications have been greatly enhanced since 9/11 brought these issues to light, technology has evolved, and government and industry are working together on standards.

Solutions have been developed and implemented in major urban areas to facilitate voice communications between agencies. Bridging devices and 800 MHz networks have helped to make this possible, and federal programs are testing technologies like multiband radios that allow first responders to communicate with other agencies regardless of which radio band they operate on.

Data sharing hasn’t come as far, but projects have been implemented that fill the void at the regional level. The FCC granted waivers to jurisdictions — including Los Angeles, Mississippi and the San Francisco Bay Area — to build their own public safety broadband networks. Once rolled out, these networks could provide the backbone for a national broadband network and move the U.S. closer to achieving cross-border collaboration and interoperability.

But until there’s a universally accepted standard for sharing voice and data, national public safety interoperability remains on hold. “There’s no better time to do this than on the 10th anniversary. We’ve been waiting 10 years; that’s much too long,” Ridge said. “We put a man on the moon in seven, and it’s 10 years after 9/11 and we still don’t have a broadband communications system.”

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.