Revolutionary plan would have private companies pay for and build public network, but time is short.
Four chemical attack “victims” are helped to the triage area by Alexandria, Virginia, firefighters during a training exercise at the Pentagon. A proposal being presented to the federal government aims to allocate specific spectrum to first responders in an effort to improve interoperability.
As debates and controversies continue to swirl about how to allocate the electromagnetic spectrum and how to improve interoperability among first responders, a plan has been proposed to solve part of both problems. The plan would place a specific portion of the spectrum under government control for public safety use. The caveat is that private industry would lease that space and build and maintain the network with the understanding that in an emergency, those private services would make way for public needs.
Officials at Cyren Call Communications Corporation,
According to Cyren Call, the 30 MHz segment requested in the plan has unique physical properties in the spectrum that will benefit public safety officials. Signals in this bandwidth can travel distances of up to 30 miles and penetrate walls and outdoor foliage, and they can be sent and received without a direct line of sight.
Under the proposal, the FCC would regulate the public airwaves by establishing a public safety broadband trust (PSBT) to hold the license for the 30 MHz. The PSBT would grant long-term access to private ventures that would build and maintain the nationwide network for public safety and also share the network and sell excess capacity for commercial purposes.
O’Brien explains that the plan calls for 30 MHz—not because that amount is half of the total available but because using less spectrum would prohibit covering expenses. The segment has to be in the 700-MHz band because it is adjacent to other public safety spectrums and has the propagation characteristics for a high-mobility system. Creating a system that can support and maintain an intact signal at high speeds requires a certain type of network, and that network needs a particular kind of spectrum.
O’Brien distinguishes the network from a hot spot, which could use different areas of the spectrum. The network would provide saturated coverage throughout hundreds of square miles. Public safety users often cannot anticipate the circumstances of situations in which they will need the network capabilities as well as flexibility and accessibility.
The FCC closed public comment on the plan on December 14, 2006. According to officials at the commission, “separate from putting this petition out for public comment, the bureau issued an order which dismissed the petition in November because the commission has no authority to take action on the request without further direction from Congress and has dismissed the petition without prejudice, leaving the docket open.”
Last August, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rule Making seeking comment on possible changes to the rules governing portions of the 698- to 806-MHz band. Those portions “have been allocated for commercial wireless services and do not include the 700- MHz guard bands nor the portions of the 700-MHz band that have been allocated for public safety services.” The commission decided to revisit some of its earlier decisions regarding service rules for licenses on the band in response to the DTV Act and “because more than four years had passed since the FCC previously established band plans and service rules for this spectrum.” The notice requested comment on several issues relating to the 700-MHz band, including modifying the size of the geographic service areas and spectrum blocks and revising the performance requirements for the portions of that band that have not yet been auctioned.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on the present and future of public safety communications on February 8. No definitive action was taken at the hearing; however, elected representatives are moving forward with the issue. In January, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) announced plans to introduce legislation to establish a new nationwide, state-of-the-art public safety broadband network to promote interoperable communications among first responders. A press release issued by the senator’s office states that the network would be created by licensing an additional 30 MHz of radio spectrum in the upper 700-MHz band to a PSBT and would provide first responders seamless nationwide roaming capability and allow for the real-time transmission of data. An official in the senator’s office notes that the amount of spectrum aligns with the bandwidth requirements in Cyren Call’s proposal but that speculation of further similarities is premature at this point. Several public safety associations have endorsed the allocation of an additional 30 MHz of the 700-MHz band and the creation of a PSBT as well. As of publication, no such legislation had been introduced nor had any additional hearings been scheduled.
|Congress is considering plans to allocate 30 megahertz (MHz) of the 700-MHz band for public safety to enhance communications among first responders.|
Cyren Call does not stand to benefit immediately from the passage of this legislation. The trust would choose from any number of private companies that would compete for commercial opportunities.
The PSBT would design the network and provide preferred services to public safety first responders. The network would make available high-speed file transfer and streaming video. “Streaming video is extremely important to first responders to send back to their command post accurate information about what is going on,” O’Brien says. The enhanced information sharing would improve situational awareness and send information to the operating control point faster. First responders in various locations could send video and images to the incident commanders who could make more informed decisions. The network expands the communications capabilities beyond voice, allowing for sharing of items such as blueprints and other images.
Under the Cyren Call proposal, the PSBT would consist of representatives from local, state and federal governments that would serve as a board of directors. The board would hire an entity to oversee the operation of the network and interface between the PSBT and the commercial partners. The private industry partners would function as they do today, investing in infrastructure and operating the network. Though public safety personnel would have first right to the spectrum, except in emergencies, they rarely would need the entire 30 MHz.
O’Brien draws an analogy between the plan’s intent and the use of emergency road vehicles. Most of the time people drive freely on a highway, but when they hear an emergency vehicle siren, they pull over. In the same way, most of the time, normal commercial traffic will use the bandwidth, but in emergency situations public safety entities would have first use of the spectrum.
The proposal introduces several unique factors that improve upon legacy plans. Unlike other public safety networks, this one would not require taxpayer dollars to create the infrastructure. “It uses private capital to build the network,” O’Brien explains. The network also would place public safety in a preferred position and enforce that preference by software. The next-generation technology would allow system operators to give certain capabilities and rights to public safety personnel and not to other users. However, because of the capacity generated, the technology also would enable public safety and commercial partners to share. The commercial partners would provide the financial resources to keep the network evergreen and updated, unlike public organizations that would be more constricted in funding a third-generation network.
Municipalities would pay for hardware purchases to use the network and would pay for network usage. These payments would give leaders the ability to see who is accessing the network and where. They could check for overuse and determine how much capacity different entities require.
O’Brien believes the network would create greater interoperability among first responders. All public safety officials would access the network with equipment that communicates with all other devices under a set of protocols. The new capabilities also would enable public safety officials to institute better safety practices. For example, firefighters could wear biometric sensors that monitor vital signs. Commanders could determine danger to the firefighters and move them out of harm’s way. Keith Kaczmarek, president, Cyren Call, states that much can be improved. “[First responders] can remote a doctor,” he shares. He adds that the network would enable applications society that has yet to develop.
To create this interoperability, the PSBT would designate a specific technology that would become the common language for next-generation wireless for all first responders. The technology would require open standards so various commercial partners could participate. The many first responder organizations at all levels then would order equipment such as computers, portable devices and cameras; negotiate a rate with the PSBT; and pay by month.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s life or death,” O’Brien says. He cites Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as examples of when problems with interoperability result in loss of life, and he adds that those were major events and that smaller scale interoperability problems occur more frequently.
Kaczmarek agrees and explains that those major disaster response and recovery efforts demonstrated that the capabilities offered by the PSBT plan are necessary at all levels of government and that the network should support U.S. Defense Department and first responder needs.
The public sector also would benefit from the advantage of private sector financing. Basing the network setup closely on a private sector model avoids the cumbersome aspects of government practices. O’Brien says an advanced network such as the one proposed could not operate using government procedures because it would have to compete with commercial interests in the wireless industry to attract customers. The proposed model encourages established and new companies to become involved in the process.
Cyren Call Communications Corporation: www.cyrencall.com
Federal Communications Commission: www.fcc.gov
U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation: http://commerce.senate.gov/public