“We all share the same goal: providing America’s first responders with a state-of-the-art communications network,” said House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) during Wednesday’s hearing. “We are by no means the first Congress to attempt to bring public safety these tools. … Yet even though Congress and the FCC have tried time and again to provide the tools and impetus to make [interoperability] a reality, today’s public safety users are only marginally closer to the interoperable communications they need. We’re here to get it right this time.”
The hearing, Creating an Interoperable Public Safety Network, brought together a panel of commercial and public safety representatives to discuss H.R. 607, the Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011, which among other things would reallocate the 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band known as the D Block to public safety. For all involved, the core issues were spectrum, creating a competitive commercial environment, governance and funding.
It was apparent during the subcommittee members’ opening remarks that advocates for the resolution were facing some critics. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said, “Public safety has been given $13 billion from the federal government for radio equipment since 2001. Despite these tools, public safety’s interoperable network still remains elusive. The question is what will bring us closer to making interoperable voice and broadband communications a reality?”
“Now we are being told that we need more money, more spectrum and new governance by a government agency or bureau. If you aren’t using the 24 MHz [you have] properly or efficiently, why would we give you more?” asked Subcommittee Vice Chair Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.).
Terry was referring to 24 MHz of spectrum between 746 and 806 MHz recovered from TV channels 60-69 with the implementation of digital TV in June 2009. Half that spectrum has been designated for narrowband voice and half for wideband data channels. Despite intimations that the spectrum has been available for six years, it was cleared for public safety only two years ago, and it takes time to build out new systems and budget for new equipment.
Jeffrey D. Johnson, chief executive of the Western Fire Chiefs Association and immediate past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, represented the Public Safety Alliance on the panel. His testimony went to the core of this question, saying that the issue has been the “thin slices of spectrum” public safety has received over 50 years.
“That is why, today, we have over 55,000 public safety agencies each operating [their] own mission-critical radio system over six or more different radio bands,” he said. “Connecting disparate frequency slices among and between agencies and jurisdictions to achieve interoperability requires the purchase, programming and deployment of electronic patching equipment operating under a governing protocol. This makes our goal of interoperability limited, difficult and expensive. We know that a new model is necessary.”
During his testimony, Johnson also noted that the 4.9 MHz public safety spectrum is not useable for broadband. He said, “It’s not as useful as the 700 MHz. The data is likely to perform the same as the voice, at street level [on 700 MHz]. The minute they become dissimilar, [first responders] quit relying on them. 700 MHz spectrum is optimal because of how the wave performs, and it’s next to our spectrum.”
Chris Imlay, general counsel for the American Radio Relay League, spoke on behalf of amateur radio operators, expressing support for the legislation and the reallocation of the D Block to public safety. He said, “We are not first responders but we are proud to provide communications during emergencies.”
Imlay addressed section 206d of the resolution, which directly affects spectrum in use by amateur radio operators, broadcasting organizations and other industry users throughout the U.S. “The problem with H.R. 607 is that the proposition provides uniquely for an auction of paired bands. The concept behind that section, 206d, is quid pro quo for the allocation of the D Block. These two segments of spectrum would be auctioned as a means of paying for the build-out. … These are not public safety allocations, and the displacement of all of these important users in these two band segments is not necessary in the creation of an interoperable public safety broadband network. … We encourage the deletion of section 206d.”
In his testimony, consultant Joe Hanna, president of Directions, disagreed with the need for more spectrum for public safety, saying that the 24 MHz of spectrum used in conjunction with commercial LTE networks (long-term evolution) should be sufficient for public safety broadband.
“The LTE platform provides an automatic seamless priority network mechanism,” said Hanna. “The greatest flaw I see in the reallocation, in [light] of the current law and the National Broadband Plan, will be the unintended consequences of creating an island ecosystem. Public safety will find itself in the same position.”
The Commercial Side
Paul Steinberg, chief technology officer of Motorola Solutions Inc., and Dennis Martinez, chief technology officer of Harris RF Communications Division, provided the subcommittee with their perspectives on deploying a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network. Both advocated for the reallocation of the D Block and a competitive market.
Steinberg emphasized the need for spectrum to achieve interoperability, saying, “A network based solely on the existing spectrum would struggle to provide interoperability. … FCC Chairman Genachowski has stated recently at the TIA conference that broadband spectrum needs are predicted to grow 35 times in the next few years. Consumer use and demand for broadband applications is experiencing explosive growth, as are the public safety’s broadband requirements.”
Joseph R. Hanley, who was representing U.S. Cellular on the panel, has a unique position, advocating for an open commercial environment with appropriate safeguards in place to ensure a competitive market whether or not the D Block is reallocated.
During the question-and-answer period, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) got straight to the point, asking, “Public safety is not able to capture the cost savings [provided by] economies of scale [for equipment]. Leveraging the commercial mass market could create savings for public safety. … How competitive is this market?”
Martinez noted that to ensure a competitive market it must be based on public safety’s ability to procure interchangeable equipment and multi-sourcing. “We must learn from the success of commercial telecommunications,” he said. “They look at every major component and subset of their systems. They do not engage in sole-source practices. We must adopt a common platform. Having done that, we can’t do it halfway. We must do it all the way and continue to follow the standard as it evolves. We must ensure that the same competitive practices that have made the commercial sector successful are applied [to public safety broadband].”
Several subcommittee members were also concerned about the timeframe in which mission-critical voice would be available over LTE broadband, the standard that was adopted for public safety broadband. The panel was of two minds about the timeframe. Johnson, Steinberg and Hanna estimated 5-10 years; and Hanley and Martin estimated 3-5 years.
On governance, Johnson said, “Local control of the network by public safety agencies is a critical component to realizing a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network.”
He emphasized that local control will allow agencies to preempt the system during large-scale emergencies, but that many more players must be involved in the governance structure. Representatives from the federal, regional and local levels, as well as from the commercial industry which would provide insight for innovation, must be included.
There was overall consensus that the governance set forth in S. 28, the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2011, did a good job of designing a structure that achieves the necessary balance.
“The national governance body would set technology standards, one appraoch to make sure things work as they should,” said Johnson. “We wouldn’t expect the federal government to build the network and not have a presence. Private sector commercial partners need to be present and active in the body.”
Many subcommittee members pointed out that the U.S. has spent $13 billion on public safety radio equipment since 2001 and wanted to know how that money was spent.
Martinez responded, “$13 billion is a large sum of money. The practice has been one of looking backwards focusing on operability not interoperability and backwards compatibility, not future interoperability.”
Johnson also noted that, again, this issue is rooted in the slice of spectrum public safety has received over the years. He said, “The public safety community’s perspective is we would love to stop spending money on interoperability and have a vision for the nationwide system and start spending our money there.”
It was noted that the $13 billion did not require interoperability.
Plenty of this money has been spent on equipment for core operability,” said Johnson. “The federal government has had a bit of responsibility in that we asked all the public safety responders to narrowband their radios. When you’re facing a requirement that means you replace your whole radio [system], you start looking for money. One of the benefits to the federal government of narrowbanding is that they can recapture that spectrum left in the band. That spectrum I’m sure will be repackaged and offered at auction to make up some of the expense.”
As a public safety communications professional, this legislation affects you directly. Get involved by reaching out to your representatives and senators and encouraging them to support H.R. 607 and S. 28. Learn more by visiting the PSA website: http://psafirst.org/take-action.
About the Author
Natasha Yetman is associate editor for APCO International’s Public Safety Communications magazine. Contact her via e-mail.