Public Safety Faces Collaboration Challenges in Pursuit of Broadband Stimulus Funds, Says Expert

Consortium under consideration could give public safety agencies a unified voice in pursuing funding for broadband networks.

by / July 7, 2009

On July 1, the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) released guidance for public and private entities seeking a piece of the second round of funding to build out broadband networks to connect underserved and unserved populations to the Internet. The agencies are distributing $7.2 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Some public safety entities, such as public safety answering points, still use networks on dial-up connections. This is a significant limitation on personnel who must respond to emergencies and would benefit from the exchange of video, images and geo-referenced information that requires a broadband network because of the amount of data involved.

Part of the guidance includes how public safety agencies may seek funding for broadband projects that are viable, sustainable and scalable in partnership with public and private entities in the community. "It's a program whose principal intent is to provide broadband access to underserved people with a little footnote saying that they would also like to see it affect public safety," said Rick Wimberly, president of the public safety consultancy Galain Solutions. "Since it's a rather hefty grant program -- billions of dollars -- that little footnote is rather significant."

But public safety agencies seeking funding through the NTIA and RUS will have to get creative about partnering with public and private organizations if they're going to have much of a chance at expanding their access to broadband networks through these grant programs, Wimberly said. And how exactly to go about that is not spelled out.

"Generally what's happening is that collaborative efforts are already under way. But it's going to be difficult for [public safety entities] to find these collaborative efforts, because it's not primarily done with organizations that they are collaborating with," Wimberly said. "For a public safety entity to identify and start collaborating between now and then is going to be pretty tough, unless they can identify somebody who is doing that. There are, for example, educational entities that provide extensive broadband, and they would be a great collaborative partner for public safety."

While this may be a challenge for public safety organizations, it's certainly not a foreign concept. "What may be a foreign concept is for public safety to view these other entities as a possible solution to help facilitate public safety's broadband needs," he said, "because generally speaking public safety will argue that their broadband networks need to be dedicated to public safety. Others would argue that security can be built in so that public safety information is protected. Certainly they are going to have to be very diligent about making sure secure information is transmitted only over secure pipes."

However, security concerns may be just another reason to collaborate. "That's going to be an issue, but it's not an issue that's unique to public safety," Wimberly said. "Financial institutions are obviously quite concerned about their information. Universities are concerned about theirs. Businesses are concerned about the security of their information."

Major Opportunity

One major opportunity for public safety entities to see funding for broadband projects is in the "middle mile." Middle mile describes the infrastructure providing service to a central point in the community, such as a library or a police station, from which point the service would then reach end-users in their homes or patrol cars.

"In [the] middle mile you've got impact on the area, of course level of need," Wimberly said. "There are certainly network capacity issues, affordability issues and a variety of other things."

Grants Process

The grants will fund projects that are technology neutral. The NTIA expects to support projects that create broadband connectivity through fixed and mobile wireless solutions as

well as fiber and satellite-based infrastructure.

Selection will be based on meeting a minimum threshold of requirements, such as application completeness. After the initial screening, each application will be reviewed by a panel of subject matter experts who will independently score each of the applications that meet the initial requirements. Each of these scores will then be averaged, and the applications with the highest scores will advance to the next stage.

Applicants whose projects are recommended by the first panel will then been asked for more detailed project information. NTIA staff with the help of independent engineering, business and subject matter consultants will review the applications and supporting documents before making a final decision about which projects merit awards.

Governors from each state will have the opportunity to provide the NTIA with recommendations as to the projects in their states that would serve the greatest need. The NTIA suggests these recommendations be supported by broadband maps.

Governors are expected to weigh in on which projects in their states should be funded. California CIO Teri Takai announced last week that the state's broadband task force would work with the federal government to determine which projects meet the state's strategic objectives. "We are actively reviewing the guidelines and will soon announce a schedule and instructions for those interested in submitting proposals," Takai said in a statement on her office's Web site.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has authorized the Florida chapter of National Lambdarail, a provider of broadband to educational and research institutions, to make those decisions for the state.

The NTIA and RUS will accept applications July 14th through August 14th. Grant awards are expected to be announced in November.

Consortium for Collaboration

Another challenge faced by public safety organizations seeking to apply for these grants is that the exact nature of the peer groups that will review the projects has not been determined. "It would be nice to think that public safety would be represented," Wimberly said, "but you have to look at the magnitude of this and the types of people who are real interested in this. And the fact that public safety is not represented by a single organization but a lot of different organizations that don't necessarily agree on the way broadband should be handled by public safety will probably interfere with their ability to be at the table."

Therefore, the best strategy for public safety entities hoping to get funding to forward their broadband projects may be to identify for-profit and nonprofit organizations and bolster their applications by demonstrating how having a public safety partner makes the project more attractive, Wimberly said.

To help with that, a group of universities, corporations, state governments and a public safety association are discussing creating an organization to represent the public safety community, according to Wimberly. "This national organization would be connected with one of these other organizations, you know, universities, hospitals, libraries," he said. "But this organization would help handle the public safety's interest."

The idea is that this organization would attach to a consortium of universities, libraries and health-care providers who would own and manage the pipe and make a portion of it available for public safety applications in underserved areas.

Public safety agencies and big bandwidth providers are discussing the idea, but nothing concrete has been decided. "The organization would be national, although it is conceivable that there would be some target states depending on the amount of funding," Wimberly said.

However, the consortium must be established quickly if it expects to have an impact on the amount of money awarded from these programs for projects serving public safety needs since the funding window opens in a week.