Public Safety Needs the D Block
December 15, 2010
By Harlin R. McEwen
Our law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel must have access to modern and reliable communications capabilities, including high-speed data and video, to communicate with each other and with federal officials across agencies and jurisdictions during emergencies. A hardened broadband network designed to meet public-safety operational requirements and provide seamless nationwide roaming capability for all levels of government is essential for public safety to meet its ever-increasing responsibilities and to better serve the public.
The major national public-safety organizations are all working together to assure a positive outcome for our nation’s public-safety personnel, which includes sufficient spectrum for both broadband and narrowband operations. Allocating the D block spectrum to public safety is an essential part of the solution.
Unfortunately, public safety is caught in a commercial battle for the D block. This has changed the discussion from a simple debate about the needs of public safety to a battle by some commercial companies with almost limitless resources that are working against public safety for commercial advantage. Public safety would lose 50 percent of the broadband spectrum it needs to serve the public so commercial companies could gain only 2 percent of the spectrum the FCC has promised them.
This is a complicated matter that confuses most people who haven’t been closely involved in the communications needs of public safety. Those who have toiled as volunteers in this battle are now being faced with so called “public-safety experts” who are attempting to thwart the best interests of public safety. I’m proud that I’ve never been employed by any vendor or commercial company and can always speak clearly and without prejudice about what I believe is best for public safety. This isn’t the case for some who claim to represent public safety, but in fact, are simply well paid to represent their clients and have no credibility within the public-safety community.
Spectrum and Control
This isn’t the first time public safety has been in a battle for spectrum. I have represented the communications interests of the members of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) for more than 30 years; and throughout that time, I have been in the forefront of several battles to gain adequate dedicated spectrum for public safety. Public safety is almost always competing with commercial interests for spectrum resources.
This is an exciting time in the world of wireless communications with new technologies being developed at a rapid pace and the public converting from wired communications services to wireless services. The public’s appetite for the recent release of products such as iPhones and Android devices that offer thousands of wireless applications has demonstrated the need for more commercial spectrum dedicated to mobile wireless services.
At the same time, public safety knows that the same wireless communications needs exist for public-safety personnel so they can perform their duties effectively and efficiently. In the current climate of increasing threats and struggling economies, it’s common to hear the phrase “you must do more with less.” To do that, public safety needs access to the best technologies and communications systems that are under its control and not under the control of commercial companies. The goal of public safety is to serve the public, while the goal of commercial companies is to make money for their shareholders. Both are good goals, but public safety shouldn’t be forced to compete with industry. In fact, all companies and their employees benefit from improved public safety and homeland security.
I have no quarrel with more spectrum being dedicated for commercial mobile services, but I object to not having adequate dedicated spectrum resources for public safety. Historically, as the demand for more public-safety services increased the need for more public-safety spectrum, we were given small splinters of spectrum in different bands; this created islands of incompatibility and a lack of interoperability. Decision-makers have noted the need to fix this problem so public-safety personnel across multiple departments, jurisdictions and all levels of government can communicate with one another. This is our last chance to get sufficient broadband spectrum to build a robust and interoperable nationwide public-safety network to help meet that requirement. Allocating the D block to public safety and adding it to the nationwide public-safety broadband license (PSBL) will allow public safety to manage and control its own systems while also partnering with organizations and groups that will help build, maintain and refresh the network. It is an investment that will pay dividends, because it will help solve the problems public-safety responders faced during Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina and other large-scale emergencies.
Why is public-safety control of sufficient spectrum capacity so essential? Communications capabilities on commercial networks during major events or incidents are severely challenged. This is actual fact, not theory developed by paid consultants. During large-scale events, both public-safety traffic and the capacity needs of consumers are at their peak. Major carrier executives have publicly stated that they wouldn’t provide public safety with absolute guaranteed access, sometimes referred to as ruthless preemption. That is not surprising, because doing so could completely disrupt consumer traffic on the same network during major events or incidents, including the public’s calls to 9-1-1.
It’s essential that public safety be able to access and control a broadband network capable of providing reliable high-speed applications. Developing 4G broadband technologies will require a minimum of 20 megahertz of spectrum — the PSBL’s 10 megahertz and the D block’s 10 megahertz — to efficiently meet the current and future needs of public safety. We shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past by underestimating the need for public-safety system growth and the spectrum needed, which would require subsequent piecemeal allocations be made in other bands. That would doom our chance to fix interoperability from the outset of the new public-safety broadband network. Public safety has embraced Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology as the broadband technology standard for nationwide public-safety network interoperability. The FCC has also agreed with the need for this standard.
In FCC Auction 73, conducted between January and March 2008, two nationwide carriers purchased the majority of the 700 MHz spectrum, and one also made purchases on the secondary spectrum market. As a result, one carrier has access to 22 megahertz of spectrum and the other to 20 megahertz of spectrum. The carriers know that LTE technology works best in a minimum of 20 megahertz of spectrum. Public safety also knows that to be the case and is urging Congress to allocate the D block to public safety so it will have access to 20 megahertz of broadband spectrum for its nationwide network.
Carriers that weren’t successful in obtaining 700 MHz spectrum in Auction 73 because of their own business decisions are arguing they need the D block to compete in the marketplace. Public safety is urging those carriers to abandon their support for an auction of the D block, look at spectrum options in other bands to meet their competitive needs, and support allocation of the D block to public safety.
Increasing Spectrum Needs
The FCC and others have predicted that commercial network operators will exceed the capacity of their spectrum by 2013, and the demand for data services by public safety is also expected to grow. A recent article in the Washington Post by Jim Giles was headlined “Are We Headed for a Smart Phone Meltdown?” Giles predicted the first mobile meltdown in 2013 and explained that data-gobbling smart phones are the source of the problem.
I agree with the vision that there will be a continuing demand for more commercial spectrum, but at the same time I have to strongly object to those who, for their own selfish reasons, don’t have the same vision for public safety. Forcing public safety to build a nationwide network on only 10 megahertz of broadband spectrum and suggesting that someday additional spectrum in another unknown band may be allocated is a slap in the face to the dedicated public-safety professionals who selflessly serve the public. The idea that public safety could combine its 700 MHz spectrum with spectrum in another band with different characteristics without significantly raising costs and negatively impacting critical operations and interoperability is ludicrous.
Allocating the D block to public safety and dedicating adequate funds from the proceeds of future spectrum auctions to build the nationwide public-safety network should be considered an investment in the future of America. Not only does public safety need to be prepared to address routine daily emergencies but also natural disasters and increasing threats of terrorism in our major cities, urban areas and rural America.
Harlin R. McEwen is the chairman of the communications and technology committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), an appointed and unpaid position he has held for the past 32 years. McEwen is also the elected chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), a nonprofit corporation consisting of representatives of 15 national public-safety organizations. The PSST holds the nationwide public-safety broadband license (PSBL).