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Back to Archives | Back to September 2007 Contents 

A Nationwide Public Safety Wireless Broadband Network

By Harlin R. McEwen, Chief of Police (Retired), Ithaca, New York; and Chairman of the IACP Communications and Technology Committee

ublic safety professionals in the United States must have access to the most modern and reliable communications technology that the nation offers, so they can communicate with each other and with federal officials, across agencies and geographies during emergencies. The ability of public safety agencies to have seamless nationwide roaming capability on a wireless broadband network that is hardened to public safety requirements is not only achievable but essential for public safety agencies to meet their increasing responsibilities.

In 1995, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in concert with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), established the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC) to provide an assessment of the communications needs of public safety agencies through the year 2010. On September 11, 1996 (exactly five years before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001), the PSWAC released a report setting forth the current and future spectrum needs of public safety. Among the findings of the PSWAC report was that 97.5 megahertz (MHz) of new public safety radio spectrum was needed by 2010, including 25 MHz within five years (i.e., by 2001).

As a result of the PSWAC report, Congress directed the FCC (in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997) to allocate no later than January 1, 1998, 24 MHz of radio spectrum between 746 and 806 MHz (to be recovered from television channels 60–69 as a result of the implementation of digital television). The FCC then reallocated for public safety use television channels 63, 64, 68, and 69. On August 6, 1998, the FCC created the Public Safety National Coordinating Committee (NCC) under the authority of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). The purpose of the NCC was to recommend rules for the use of the 24 MHz of public safety spectrum in the 700-MHz band.

In various proceedings, the FCC allocated half of the new spectrum (12 MHz) for urgently needed public safety narrowband voice channels and the remaining half for wideband data channels. Since then, significant advances in technology have made it desirable to consider broadband data channels. To accommodate new broadband technologies, the FCC has currently proposed some modifications to the 700-MHz spectrum.

Unfortunately, the current 24 MHz of spectrum already allocated for public safety is not sufficient for a nationwide broadband network for the following two reasons:

  • Half of the spectrum (12 MHz) is allocated for urgently needed narrowband voice and is already licensed and being used by public safety agencies in areas where there are no competing television broadcasters. Many other agencies have planned to use the frequencies available in this spectrum once television broadcasters have vacated the spectrum in February 2009.

  • The 12 MHz of spectrum designated for data channels is not sufficient in capacity to support both public safety and commercial services. There must be sufficient spectrum for commercial investors to be able to offer reliable commercial services that would not regularly be disrupted by public safety preemption. Without commercial investors, public safety has no funding mechanism to build a nationwide broadband network.

The concept currently under consideration by the FCC is to have priority access for public safety to a nationwide, interoperable wireless broadband network that incorporates the latest technologies in use by the private sector. The public safety community is currently supporting a proposal to create such a network, based upon a public-private partnership model. The original model was developed by Morgan O’Brien, a cofounder of Nextel and current chairman of Cyren Call Communications, with input from the public safety community. That model required congressional action to allocate 30 MHz of spectrum, scheduled for auction, to the public safety community in what would be known as a public safety broadband trust. Because such legislation has been blocked by the strong lobbying of the current commercial carriers, that proposal has been put on hold by the public safety community.

Many public safety organizations have issued resolutions and supporting statements asking Congress and the FCC to give serious consideration to the concept of a public-private partnership that would build a nationwide public safety broadband network. Statements have been issued by the IACP; the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials–International (APCO); the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC); the National Sheriffs’ Association; the Major Cities Chiefs Association; the Major County Sheriffs’ Association; police chiefs associations of the states of Michigan and Illinois; the Western Fire Chiefs Association; fire chiefs associations of the states of Connecticut, Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, and New York; and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).

The public safety benefits envisioned include the following:

  • Broadband data services (such as text messaging, photos, diagrams, and streaming video) currently unavailable in existing public safety land mobile systems

  • A hardened public safety network with infrastructure built to withstand local natural hazards (tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, etc.) that would include strengthened towers and backup power with fuel supplies to withstand long-term outages of public power sources

  • Nationwide roaming and interoperability for local, state, and federal public safety agencies (police, fire, and emergency medical services) and other emergency services such as transportation, health care, and utilities

  • Access to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) similar to current commercial cellular services

  • Push-to-talk, one-to-one, and one-to-many radio capabilities that would provide a backup to (but would not replace) traditional public safety land mobile mission-critical voice systems

  • Access to satellite services to provide reliable nationwide communications where terrestrial services either do not exist or are temporarily out of service

The public safety community, represented primarily by the NPSTC, has rallied behind a modified concept for a public-private partnership that would build a nationwide public safety broadband network. Frontline Wireless originally developed the current proposal. Although the national public safety community, represented by the NPSTC, has not endorsed the Frontline Wireless proposal in its entirety, there are many parts of the proposal that would be beneficial to public safety.

In anticipation of possible FCC approval of this concept, some of the national public safety organizations created a new nonprofit corporation called the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), which will apply to the FCC to become the new National Public Safety Licensee. In June the PSST met and elected officers to begin this process. The author has been elected president. The vice president is Robert M. Gurss, who also serves as the director of legal and government affairs for APCO. The secretary-treasurer is Alan Caldwell, who also serves as a senior adviser to the IAFC.

On July 31, 2007, the FCC voted to adopt rules for implementation of a nationwide interoperable broadband public safety network in the 700-MHz band (see figure 1).
Figure 1. Band plan changes adopted by the FCC

On August 10, 2007, the FCC issued a Report and Order (R&O) on the matter, which will take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. The R&O designates 10 MHz of the currently allocated 700-MHz public safety spectrum to be combined with 10 MHz of the auctioned spectrum to provide a total of 20 MHz of spectrum for the new network. The R&O also provides for a single Public Safety Broadband Licensee (PSBL) that will negotiate a network-sharing agreement (NSA) with the auction winner of the adjacent spectrum to form the new nationwide public-private broadband network. The auction winner would build the new network pursuant to the NSA. As part of this negotiation, the PSBL will insist on appropriate rules and technical standards to ensure maximum interoperability, reliability, redundancy, innovation, and choice for public safety customers using this spectrum. Finally, as part of its decision, the FCC also included a mechanism for the PSBL to allow for limited local construction of broadband or wideband systems.

The FCC R&O requires a slightly different makeup than originally included in the PSST. It requires 11 board members, six of which were included in the original board (APCO, IACP, NSA, IAFC, NASEMSO, and NPSTC). In addition, the PSBL is required to include the National Governors Association (NGA), National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) among the organizations represented on the board.

The PSBL is expected to retain an adviser/agent who will ensure that the nationwide, Internet Protocol (IP)–based, next-generation network is built to the technology and hardening standards established by the PSBL through business relationships with commercial entities that will build and maintain the network.

One final observation is that the 700-MHz spectrum remains encumbered by television broadcasters in many areas of the country. The Budget Deficit Act of 2005, enacted by Congress and signed into law by the president in January 2006, finally sets a firm vacate date for broadcasters of February 17, 2009. Until then, much of the spectrum under consideration will not be available.

Given the many ramifications of the July 2007 FCC decision, the construction of a new nationwide public safety broadband network should have an enduring positive impact on public safety for many years to come.■

Harlin McEwen has been in the field of law enforcement for over 49 years. He served as chief of police for the City of Ithaca, New York, and as a deputy assistant director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. He has served as chairman of the IACP Communications and Technology Committee for over 29 years; serves as communications adviser to the National Sheriffs’ Association, Major County Sheriffs’ Association, and the Major Cities Chiefs Association; and advises various local, state, and federal agencies. He is a member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security SAFECOM Program Executive Committee and has served as vice chair of the NPSTC.



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 9, September 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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