For public safety agencies across the country, an interoperable high-speed wireless network couldn’t come fast enough.

First responders want to be able to download and upload large data files from the field and communicate on a network without delays and patchy coverage. Fortunately ultra-fast fourth-generation (4G) wireless technology has been building momentum in 2010, with the latest boost coming from Verizon Wireless.

By the end of the year, Verizon plans to launch a massive long term evolution (LTE) network, reaching 110 million Americans in 38 major markets across the country, company officials announced Wednesday, Oct. 6, at the CTIA Enterprise and Applications conference.

Deployed over Verizon’s nationwide 700 MHz spectrum, the network will extend applications like never before with data downlink rates of 5 to 12 megabits per second (Mbps) and uplink rates of 2 to 5 Mbps. To start, Verizon’s network will be available in cities such as Seattle, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. In addition, 60 commercial airports will also have LTE coverage. Some public safety entities, such as the Baltimore (Md.) Police Department in a pilot with Sprint in January 2009, have already tested 4G technology.

“It’s not about just getting faster e-mail and making faster voice calls; we do that pretty quickly now,” said Bernie McMonagle, Verizon’s associate director of federal government data solutions. “It’s about enabling applications that you couldn’t run before through a wireless device.”

Public safety personnel believe such as a network gives first responders access to advanced communications and massive data files (video, mapping and GPS applications, etc.), U.S. public safety agencies support LTE technology for a proposed nationwide public safety network.

From public safety and emergency management to law enforcement, education and health care, LTE technology will enhance video-sharing, surveillance, conferencing and streaming, and provide greater coverage and better penetration of buildings.

“All those walls are coming down,” McMonagle said. “The immediacy of that information is really where the power of these new network solutions will be.”

Private Versus Public

But for public safety officials, these solutions still present a dilemma: Should a public safety network be both public and private?

This is the question that has been cooking for months ever since the FCC pushed its plans to auction off a 10 MHz slice of 700 MHz spectrum, known as the “D Block.” Under the FCC’s proposal, proceeds of the auction would fund a public safety broadband network, connecting police and firefighters nationwide on wireless devices during emergencies.

First responder groups objected. The D Block should be directly controlled by public safety agencies, not commercial providers, according to the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), a coalition of first responder associations.

To address concerns expressed by some public safety professionals, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) last month introduced the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act. Among other things, the bill, which won praise by the PSA as well as wireless giants Verizon and AT&T, reverses the FCC’s idea and instead aims to allocate the valuable chunk of spectrum to public safety.

“We strongly urge the Senate to quickly pass this critical legislation that will improve the way America’s first responders protect and serve the public,” read an announcement from the PSA in August. “Public safety officials … are united in their strong support for the allocation of the D Block to public safety and the establishment of a funding program to construct and maintain a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network that will improve our nation’s homeland security and provide first responders with advanced voice and data communications technologies that are urgently needed.”

Wireless Boom

Verizon’s new network adds more momentum for 4G. Last December, a Swedish telecom operator deployed the first-ever commercial LTE services in Stockholm and Oslo, Norway.

Verizon plans to have its network covering two-thirds of the population in 18 months and nearly the entire U.S. population by 2013, according to Verizon Communications President Lowell McAdam.

The wireless provider’s announcement coincides with the latest statistics that show an explosion in wireless data usage, smartphone adoption, capital expenditures, and SMS and MMS traffic.

In its semi-annual survey on wireless trends, trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association found that wireless subscriber connections jumped by 16 million since June 2009 and represent a penetration rate of 93 percent. And in the past year, smartphones and wireless-enabled PDAs grew from 40.7 million in July 2009 to 61.2 million in June 2010, which brings the total of data-capable devices on network to nearly 265 million.

“As the survey data constantly proves, the wireless industry is incredibly vibrant, intensely competitive and remarkably innovative while still providing unparalleled value for consumers,” said Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association, in a release. “Whether wireless technology is being used by other industries such as health care, education, transportation or energy, these results affirm our industry is revolutionizing and improving the way we live and work.”

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer