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IWCE and the 700 MHz Partnership

Written by Stephenie Slahor

The annual International Wireless Communica-tions Expo (IWCE) in February began its meeting with a look at what progress has been made in the 700 MHz Public Safety / Private Partnership project. Derek Poarch, chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission, said, “Protection of the American public is something the FCC takes very seriously.” The nationwide public safety network is to be built, he pledged, and the equipment will feature “off-the-shelf” technology. He said such a network is vital to achieving interoperability, especially in times of large-scale disasters.

He promised that the FCC would remain “diligent” in making sure the partnership between public service and the private sector will work and that the goal of a nationwide network will be reached. The FCC will retain “significant oversight” to monitor the progress, he said, and to aid in negotiations where obstacles occur. There should be 99.3% coverage of the nation by the 10th year of the project (2019), with the remaining area to be covered by satellite links. He said, “99.3 will give a large area of coverage to the country.”

Poarch pointed out that there has been substantial research and development in the commercial sector to benefit public safety. The FCC expects vendors to use the opportunity “to lead to advanced economic and efficient equipment” that will benefit public safety. “Together we can assure the success” of the 700 MHz project, he said.

Agencies have the need for complete information during local and regional emergencies, and they must have the ability to communicate effectively among themselves. That communication would include not only police and fire services, but also medical, hospital, utilities and other agencies and organizations with a need to be included in handling a disaster or emergency.

Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, said public safety has had to fight for spectrum. The tradition is land mobile voice communication, and that will certainly continue to be essential for public safety. But the need for communication goes beyond that, he said, to include data transfer and video. Public safety agencies are under-funded, and the “latest and best” is not always within reach of their budgets, he said. He termed the establishing of a nationwide public safety broadband network “a giant step forward.” It allows for national management of a new system, “and that’s new for most of us” who experience primarily local decision making, he said.

He pointed out that public safety has been allotted “small pieces of spectrum,” and has had to adapt to that. Although it will be costly to move everyone to the network, it is a move that is necessary for efficiency and interoperability. The partnership must give priority access to public safety, plus access to additional broadband spectrum during emergencies, McEwen said.

By 2013, 75% of the population will be served by the network; by 2016, 95%; and by 2019, 99.3%. There will also be coverage of all major highways and interstates, so even under-populated areas will have communications if such routes run through their regions. Satellite components will assist in areas where terrestrial service is not possible, he explained.

McEwen said the project will also have to include the hardening of transmission facilities for harsh weather and other hazards. That will include cell sites, antenna towers, back-up facilities and generators. “If you have no power, you have nothing,” he said. State-of-the-art security and encryption will also be required.

In October 2007, Cyren Call Communications was chosen as the agent and adviser to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust. In his remarks to the IWCE opening session, Morgan O’Brien, chairman of Cyren Call Communications, likened the new network system to the project that created the Hoover Dam. He pointed out that the dam was not only the engineering feat of its time, it also required companies joining together to create it and the use of initiative, cooperation and diligence on the part of the companies and individuals working on it.

“There has never been a single block of spectrum” made available to public safety, nor has there been anything like the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, or a public safety / private partnership for creating and funding such a project, he said. The project was previously thought to be unsolvable, but it is progressing now, he said. “It doesn’t matter when a temporary obstacle surfaces,” he said. It can be overcome.

“The way forward, like frequently in situations of this magnitude, is not clear,” he said, but he felt that was no reason to hesitate. “It won’t be easy. We are much closer to the beginning of solving this long-term problem than the end,” but progress should continue because the project is worthy of the citizens it will serve, he said.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., is a lawyer who writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at drss12@msn.com.

Published in Law and Order, May 2008

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