The Cyren Call project would take an estimated 10 years to build at approximately $17 billion. It would use a block of 30 MHz in the 700 MHz spectrum band, which is to be auctioned off in 2008. The bill for the project was introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in March, and would put the band spectrum in a public safety broadband trust.
Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Tom Ridge urged the project's creation, while McEwen said he's intrigued by the idea, adding that the network wouldn't be designed to replace traditional land mobile legacy systems, but could tie them together.
"You'd have nationwide, roaming, compatibility," McEwen said. "And you'd have voice over IP [Internet protocol] backup to your traditional, more reliable voice systems."
But the project has its critics, including senators, the FCC and telecommunications companies, who want to guard the spectrum and dislike the concept of having Cyren Call managing it.
McEwen said he hasn't seen a better proposal for a nationwide system, and that it would be a relief to taxpayers, who'd otherwise have to pay for many more local systems. Critics, however, say users will still be on the hook for expensive proprietary handsets. Passage of the bill may be a long shot because Congress has a tendency toward wanting to sell spectrum commercially rather than putting it in a public trust.
In the interim, some states, such as Florida, are building 800 MHz radio systems through which public safety agencies statewide can communicate. Okaloosa County, Fla., is in the process of joining this system, and expects to go online in 2009.
The county is now working with 1970s architecture, but emergency workers, deputies and county workers all operate on different systems. Joining the state system will save the county the $10 million it would have spent to build radio towers. However, there's still the cost of $600,000 for dispatching consoles, as well as startup costs for radios, which is expected to be $200,000. Sheriff's deputies are expected to pay more than $500,000 for radio startup.
In Silicon Valley, a group of 30 law enforcement, fire and emergency medical agencies in Santa Clara County is developing a voice/data wireless system that was cited by the DHS as a "Best Practices" model for interoperability.
The system will rely on a microwave network, now being built, that will enable first responders to exchange voice and data. Another part of the area's interoperability system is the Bay Area Mutual Aid Communications System (called BayMACS), which responders can use to communicate regardless of jurisdictional boundaries.
But because this system exists on a single channel, it would be easily overwhelmed during a catastrophe. The group is looking at a network-based VoIP radio solution to solve the problem.
The Gee Whiz Factor
The very mention of IP-based systems is the cause of many a furrowed brow.
"There are lots of gee whiz technology solutions that could help these folks in various parts of their jobs," said John Clark, former deputy chief of public safety for the FCC. "But in terms of making sure they have real-time communications that might be the difference between life and death, it has to be with them in the tower, in their hands, on their belt, and it has to be seamlessly usable. In other words, it can't require them to dial up channel 9; it's got to be something that just happens."
Some agencies are operating with legacy equipment that precludes them from considering interoperability with their neighboring agencies and jurisdictions.
"It's pretty common," McEwen said. "There are a lot of people around the country having problems because of their systems being old and needing replacement. Little by little they're getting replaced, but it costs
Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout.