Auction the D Block to Fund Public Safety
Wednesday, July 14, 2010 | Comments
By James Arden Barnett Jr.
As we approach the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, it’s sad that the lack of interoperable communications on Sept. 11 actually increased the loss of life and destruction on that terrible day. Sad also is the fact that we still don’t have an acceptable level of interoperability for public-safety communications.
Now, there is a brief technological window when we can do something to ensure that police, fire and emergency medical responders can communicate with each other. The FCC’s national broadband plan (NBP) contains the results of months of capacity analysis, cost modeling and numerous discussions with public-safety organizations. It proposes a comprehensive plan for a nationwide, public-safety broadband network under public safety’s control that the nation can afford; we know of no other plan that is comprehensive and affordable. Congress has designated 10 megahertz of spectrum for public safety that can be used for wireless broadband. By using modern cellular architecture, the latest Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology and good spectrum management, that 10 megahertz will perform similar to 160 megahertz on voice systems. We can’t design a cutting-edge 4G network based on public safety’s experience with 40-year-old technologies.
This 10 megahertz will cover day-to-day operations and most emergencies efficiently, but we know that we will face disasters in the future that may rival Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. For the worst emergencies, the public-safety broadband network contains an innovative concept of priority access and roaming across commercial broadband wireless spectrum. By roaming to any available commercial 4G network, with first-in-line privileges, public safety will instantly have access to 50 or 60 megahertz of additional spectrum beyond the 10 megahertz dedicated for the public-safety network.
Some in public safety advocate the reallocation of the adjacent 10 megahertz of D block spectrum from commercial use to public-safety use, but studies show how 10, 20 or 30 megahertz of additional dedicated spectrum may not be sufficient to support public-safety broadband communications in a major emergency. The D block reallocation alone wouldn’t be enough; the FCC’s plan essentially provides a sound resolution to address potential network capacity concerns. Moreover, the FCC plan provides public safety with dependability and backup support, which doesn’t exist with a network of combined public-safety and D block spectrum.
Funding is perhaps the most crucial factor in determining whether America will ever have a nationwide, interoperable public-safety broadband network. Nationwide under the FCC’s plan means coverage for 99 percent of America’s population, bringing broadband communications to first responders throughout the nation, as well as big cities. A communications system that many can’t afford to build defeats interoperability and sets up a patchwork of “haves” and “have-nots” and leaves public-safety communications where it has been for years — behind the times. That is why the FCC plan has a detailed cost analysis. By acting quickly to catch the commercial 4G network buildout, the FCC’s plan would save billions of dollars related to the construction and operations of the network.
Building the network will cost $6.5 billion during the next 10 years if we start now. If Congress decides to devote auction proceeds to the network, auctioning the D block will jumpstart the construction of the network and catch the technological wave. If the D block is reallocated to public safety, it will nearly destroy the commercial market for manufacturing and distributing the network equipment and devices and take away the only near-term funding source for the network. The cost of building the network might increase to $15 billion for a stand-alone network. And the cost of operating a dedicated network could be $20 billion or more during the next 10 years. In other words, a nationwide, interoperable network will likely be unaffordable. Rural areas and underfunded cities will not have it.
We only have one brief chance to incorporate interoperability into a nationwide public-safety broadband network from the beginning of a new 4G technology rollout in America. If we do not have a well-researched, comprehensive and cost-effective plan, the next generation in America will still be wondering why we couldn’t solve the Sept. 11 interoperability problem. As a nation, we need to move forward together, and the time to do so is now.
What the FCC Plan Would Provide
  • Public funding for network construction and operations during the first 10 years
  • Use of 4G commercial technologies
  • Leveraging commercial networks and resources to keep costs low
  • Upgrading and building new towers to ensure network capacity and reliability
  • First responders get access to an additional 60 megahertz of commercial spectrum on bad days
  • Cutting-edge mobile technologies put in the hands of first responders
  • Deployment of more mobile assets, including cells on wheels, in large-scale emergencies.

James Arden Barnett Jr. is the chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. He is responsible for overseeing FCC activities pertaining to public safety, homeland security, emergency management and disaster preparedness, and represents the commission on these issues before federal, state and industry organizations. Barnett served 32 years in the United States Navy and Navy Reserve, retiring in 2008. Before coming to the FCC, Barnett was a senior research fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a policy think tank focusing on science and technology issues of importance to the nation, including cyber conflict and cyber security. From 1984 – 2001, Barnett was a senior partner at Mitchell, McNutt and Sams in Tupelo, Miss., with a governmental law practice representing municipalities, counties, law-enforcement agencies, schools and local government officials.
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