Another problem we face is the small market. The total market for public safety is perhaps 10 million radios that are replaced, say, once every 10 years. On the other hand, the cell phone market is huge. An estimated 260 million cell phones are replaced every two years in the U.S. alone. The economies of scale means consumers will have a lot more choices, and their cell phones will be relatively cheap.

So is there some way to reduce the sky-high cost of these dedicated public safety networks while at the same time not endangering cops, firefighters, EMTs and the public in general?

Absolutely.

The FCC, in its National Broadband Plan, and the U.S. Department of Commerce, with its forward-thinking grant program for broadband, are lighting the way for a new public safety network that will be more robust, national in scope and interoperable. By interoperable I mean the new public safety equipment will probably operate almost anywhere in the nation, whether on a dedicated government network or on a commercial cell phone network. Here are some features of the new networks:

• The FCC and major public safety organizations have called for the new public safety networks to be built using a fourth-generation (4G) technology called LTE — long-term evolution. Not coincidently, this is the same technology which will be used by the major cell phone companies Verizon and AT&T when they construct their 4G networks. The commercial networks will operate on different frequencies than the public safety networks, but they will all be built in the same general area of the wireless spectrum — the 700 MHz band.

• Because they are all using the same technology (LTE) and are in a similar slice of radio spectrum (700 MHz), potentially they will all interoperate. That means that public safety officers will use the government networks and frequencies when they are within range, but could roam to a commercial network if necessary. So cops and firefighters will have the best of both worlds — coverage from dedicated government networks and from multiple private carriers. The FCC is even considering rules which would require the commercial companies to give public safety priority on the commercial LTE networks.

• Because everyone — consumers, cops, firefighters and even general government workers such as transportation and utilities — are using LTE, constructing the networks can be much cheaper. Commercial telecommunications carriers could put government antennas and equipment at their cell sites, and vice-versa. Perhaps the network equipment at the cell site, or even the central switches could be shared. Public safety will still be using its own frequencies and have priority, but could share many other network elements.

• And the radios used by individual public safety officers or placed in police vehicles and fire trucks also can be much cheaper. Because manufacturers are all making equipment for the same technology — LTE — it could cost just a few hundred dollars. Again, there will be specialized and ruggedized devices for firefighters and others working in punishing environments, but the innards — the electronics — will be much less expensive.

• Next, we have to get all first and second responders to use the same or common networks. Here in Washington state, for example, we have multiple overlapping and duplicative networks. City and county police and fire in the region have one network; each electric utility (e.g., Seattle City Light) has another network. Transportation departments have their own networks (e.g., Seattle Transportation and Washington State Transportation each has their own separate network). The Washington State Patrol has its own separate network. The state’s Department of Natural Resources has its own network. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has its own network. And federal government agencies (FBI, customs and immigration) have their own networks. This is patently stupid and expensive. As we build these new fourth-generation LTE networks, we need to build a single network with lots of sites, and lots of redundancy and hardening to withstand disasters. And everyone — first and second responders from all agencies — should use it.

• Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all the networks will be nationally interoperable. The lack of communications interoperability was a major finding of the 9/11 Commission which investigated the Sept.11 World Trade Center attacks. But with these new networks, a Seattle police officer’s fourth-generation LTE device will also work on New York City’s LTE network or New Mexico’s LTE network or on any Verizon or AT&T network anywhere in the nation. As disasters happen anywhere in the country, and first and second responders are rushed to the scene of the disaster, they could take their communications gear with them and it would work.

Seattle is one of about 20 forward-thinking governments leading the way to deploy these new networks. Seattle’s public safety LTE network, hopefully launched with a federal stimulus grant, will eventually expand throughout the Puget Sound region and across Washington state. Oregon also has authority and a grant request to build an LTE network, and we are working with Oregon to make sure our networks in the two states work together seamlessly.

Is all of this a pipe dream? I don’t think so. A number of public and private companies, governments and telecommunications carriers and equipment manufacturers are working together to realize it. Many of them are in the Public Safety Alliance. In the federal government the FCC is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the departments of Commerce and Homeland Security are providing grant funding. It will take a lot of work and many years to realize this network.

But when it’s finished, we’ll have public safety networks which work to keep us safe, and consumer networks which work to keep us productive and linked to our friends and families. These networks will be separate yet connected. They will be built from common technologies. And they will be less expensive for taxpayers than the networks we have today.

Bill Schrier  |  Contributing Writer

Bill Schrier is senior policy advisor in the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) at the State of Washington.  In this capacity he chairs the State Interoperability Executive Committee (SIEC), serves as the primary point of contact for the FirstNet effort in the state and advises the CIO on other matters.

In the past he served as the Deputy Director of the Center for Digital Government.   He also retired in May, 2012, after over 8 years serving as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the City of Seattle and director of the city's Department of Information Technology (DoIT).  In this capacity he managed over 200 employees and budgets up to $59 million to support city government technology, and reported directly to Mayor Michael McGinn. 

Schrier was named one of Government Technology’s 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers in 2008, and a Computerworld Premier 100 Leader for 2010.  He writes a blog about the intersection of information technology and government, how they sometimes collide but often influence and change each other.   He tweets at www.twitter.com/billschrier

Schrier is a retired officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington.

E-mail:       bill@schrier.org
Phone:      206-255-2156