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The Future of the Emergency Communications Network

Written by Jennifer Gavigan

The inability of police and firefighters to communicate with one another revealed the current system’s inadequacies. A possible solution to the problem is creating a new emergency communications network using a portion of the public airwaves funded by private money.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved an emergency communications plan in the summer of 2007. The original plan called for the creation of a network shared by public safety officials and commercial users. The cost would be covered by private investors who, in the long run, hope to make a profit. Considered prime territory for providing advanced wireless broadband services, the airwaves in the 700 MHz band will become available as TV broadcasters make the transition to digital TV.

Under the plan, the FCC set aside about one-sixth of the recently auctioned airwaves. This portion was termed the “D block” and would have been combined with a roughly equal portion of spectrum controlled by a public safety trust to create a shared network. The winning D block bidder, in exchange for use of the public safety spectrum, would build the network and make a profit by selling access to wireless service providers.

But the recently completed auction of a portion of the public airwaves, while raising a record $19.1 billion, failed to attract a bidder to build the wireless broadband network. Frontline, a start-up company backed by Silicon Valley heavyweights and co-founded by former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, was the only prospective bidder that showed interest in buying the spectrum and sharing it with public safety. But the company has since ceased operations due to its inability to raise financing.

According to the Associated Press, a congressional panel of Republicans recently said the FCC should re-auction a block of public airwaves to the highest bidder and turn the proceeds over to public safety professionals to build a new, nationwide emergency communications network. The idea was raised when the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet heard testimony on why the original plan to create a new network failed to attract much interest from the commercial sector.

Estimates on how much a national network would cost have varied widely, but the commission has estimated it would cost between $6 billion and $7 billion. Skeptics of the plan and its high price tag are uncertain whether the block would generate that much revenue at an auction. Harlin McEwen, chairman of the nonprofit board that oversees the spectrum trust, opposed the idea, saying it would not provide enough spectrum to emergency responders and would be unlikely to raise enough money to build the network. Additionally, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., said he considered such an approach to be an admission that “we are not serious about attaining true interoperability.”

The real concern for public safety professionals is how this will benefit them. One positive aspect of a new network is that it would help solve the interoperability problem by allowing emergency personnel access to many of the advances in wireless technology now available to commercial users. First responders now communicate using fragmented and sometimes overlapping airwaves and limited technologies such as walkie-talkies. The most advanced services, such as streaming video and data, will come online first. However, voice communications will take longer as emergency workers in thousands of local jurisdictions make the transition from trusted, existing voice systems to new, interoperable voice networks on one common network.

Many of today’s public safety agencies can’t talk to each other in a crisis because their radios operate on different frequencies. An effort to connect all public safety agencies on the same network has been in the works for about 10 years. Washington, DC, has been operating a wireless broadband pilot program for a few years. The technology allowed U.S. Park Police to monitor the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall using live streaming video shot from a helicopter and fed to a mobile command center, according to Robert LeGrande, deputy chief technology officer for the District of Columbia.

Broadband technology is the next generation in communications in which voice, video and data all come together on single devices. When fully deployed, the new platform will allow firefighters to access facility plans from a central database before charging into a burning building and give police immediate access to drivers’ information as well as bulletins on wanted fugitives.

Barring legislation, the FCC will have to decide what to do about the emergency network plan. Support for the concept behind the original plan was strong among some members of the House panel as well as the FCC, but there was also general agreement that more details needed to be ironed out regarding the responsibilities of the winning bidder before any re-auction would begin.

Regardless of who submits the winning bid, construction of the new network will be a major undertaking. According to the auction rules, it must cover 75% of the population within four years and 99.3% within 10 years. Unlike a regular wireless network, it must be able to withstand harsh weather conditions. It will require thousands of new cell towers plus a satellite backup system in case the primary network goes down.

While legislators and bureaucrats have embraced the idea of a new network, they haven’t dedicated funds to pay for it. For that, the plan depends on private investors. If the plan succeeds, it will bring the benefits of modern communications technology to the nation’s first responders, all without taking any funds out of the U.S. Treasury. If it fails, it will further delay a practical solution to the nation’s emergency communications problems for years to come.

Jennifer Gavigan is the former associate editor of LAW and ORDER and Tactical Response. She can be reached at jengavigan@comcast.net.

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2008

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