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Back to Archives | Back to August 2009 Contents 

Technology Talk

Update—Nationwide Public Safety Shared Wireless Broadband Network

Eddie Reyes, Deputy Chief of Police, Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department; and Harlin McEwen, Chief of Police, Ithaca, New York (ret.) and Chair of the IACP Communications and Technology Committee

his Technology Talk is an update on the status of the nationwide public safety shared wireless broadband network. This is an executive summary highlighting major developments and several intermitting activities are left out.

The Need

The public safety community's need to have access to modern and reliable communications capabilities to effectively communicate during emergencies, carrying across jurisdictional boundaries, in any geography, with multiple disciplines, is well documented and supported by resolutions by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) resolutions.1 Today the technology is available; what is left to do is to deploy it.

The goal is a shared wireless broadband network that would give public safety the following:

  • Broadband data services (such as text messaging, photos, diagrams, and streaming video) not currently available in most existing public safety land mobile systems.

  • A hardened public safety network with infrastructure built to withstand local natural hazards (such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods) 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 public safety agencies and other emergency services such as transportation, health care, and utilities.

  • Access to the public switched telephone network similar to current commercial cellular services.

  • Push-to-talk, one-to-one and one-to-many radio capability that would provide a backup to (but 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 Beginning—1997

In 1997, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established a plan to allocate 24 MHz of spectrum in the upper 700 MHz band for public safety use. In the summer of 2009, this spectrum, previously owned and used by broadcasters for analog television signals, was turned over for exclusive public safety use. This spectrum is extremely attractive to the public safety community because of its ability to penetrate walls and travel great distances.

It is well established that public safety personnel need a wireless broadband network with priority access that has a nationwide footprint, is interoperable and shared, and incorporates the latest technologies utilized by the private sector. The fact is that today the general public has better wireless communication capabilities than most first responders. These robust broadband wireless networks available to the public have created the expectation that public safety personnel can communicate with one another, regardless of discipline or geography. In an effort to expedite the transition and deployment of this spectrum to the public safety community, the FCC, public safety organizations, and industry representatives developed a proposal to create a network that would be based upon a public-private sector partnership model.

The 2007 Public-Private Partnership Model

In June 2007, a model was established that developed the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), a not-for-profit corporation. The PSST is governed by a board of 15 members. One representative from each of the following organizations has a vote:

  • American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials

  • American Hospital Association

  • Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International

  • Forestry Conservation Communications Association

  • IACP

  • International Association of Fire Chiefs

  • International City/County Management Association

  • International Municipal Signal Association

  • National Association of State Emergency Medical Services Officials

  • National Association of State 9-1-1 Administrators

  • National Emergency Management Association

  • National Emergency Number Association

  • National Fraternal Order of Police

  • National Governors Association

  • National Sheriffs’ Association

In November 2007, the FCC issued the PSST a nationwide public safety broadband license (PSBL) for 12 of the 24 MHz of broadband spectrum in this band. The other 12 bands are locally managed and licensed systems by public safety organizations addressing their need for narrowband voice channels.

700 MHz D Block Financing

In keeping with the 2007 public-private partnership plan and under the authority of the FCC’s Second Report and Order of July 31, 2007,2 the PSBL can enter into leases of spectrum usage rights with commercial owners/operators of the spectrum adjacent to the public safety broadband spectrum. The concept, subject to the capacity and other requirements of the public safety community, is that the PSBL would make the nonrequired public safety capacity associated with the broadband spectrum available to the commercial owners/operators. Thus D Block, when auctioned by the FCC, would finance the building of a nationwide public safety shared wireless broadband network paid for by commercial operators and not by the public safety community or the taxpayers. The FCC rules would ensure that public safety has priority access in emergencies. Under this concept the network would be continually refreshed with the latest technical improvements paid by public safety’s commercial partners.

The Failed D Block Auction

From January 24, 2008, through March 18, 2008, the FCC conducted Auction 73. The entire 700 MHz spectrum, with the exception of the D Block, was sold. Although there has been a lot of speculation as to why the D Block was not sold, many people believe it was because the private sector sought the unencumbered spectrum that did not include any public safety requirements.

On May 14, 2008, the FCC issued the Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (2nd FNPRM) which discussed the failed D Block Auction and proposed further issues for consideration. Comments and replies were due on July 7, 2008. When voting on the 2nd FNPRM, then-FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said “As I have stated before, I believe the nation’s most prudent response in the terrifying days following 9/11 would have been to build a dedicated, federally-funded, interoperable national broadband network for first responders. However, as I explained last month in testimony before the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, that option is no longer on the table. So I believe the FCC is left with the sobering conclusion that a public-private shared model represents the last, best chance we have at using the 700 MHz spectrum band to improve communications for state and local public safety users. I still believe that today.”3

In a process of this magnitude where multiple priorities, financial gains and self-interests are at stake, there will be different views and strong opinions. From July 31, 2008, through April 2009 various factors—the lack of an adequate source of funding to support substantial ongoing activities on behalf of the PSST, the indefinite hiatus in the regulatory processes toward creation of a nationwide network for public safety, the recalibration affecting both personnel and policy that naturally follows the change in federal administration, and the continuing turmoil in the financial markets—had slowed the process.

2009 Renewed Efforts

On April 20, 2009, the Major Cities Police Chiefs (MCC) 700 MHz Working Group hosted an invitation-only meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss gaining consensus with other public safety organizations on forward steps to build a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network. Attending the meeting in addition to representatives of the MCC 700 MHz were representatives of the IACP, National Sheriffs’ Association, International Association of Fire Chiefs, Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO), and the Metro Fire Chiefs. A follow-up meeting of the same parties was hosted by APCO in Washington, D.C., on May 28, 2009. From these meetings, one primary consensus emerged—the MCC will take the lead in pursuing congressional action to remove the D Block from auction and to allocate it directly to public safety as part of the nationwide public safety broadband license now held by the PSST.

On June 29, 2009, Julius Genachowski was sworn in as the new FCC chairman and began reshaping the FCC. The public safety community looks forward to working with Chairman Genachowski in furtherance of gaining a nationwide public safety broadband network.

The good news is that the spectrum remains reserved for public safety. However, it is elusive how to best deploy a wireless broadband network with priority access that has a nationwide footprint, is interoperable and shared, and incorporates the latest technologies and the best methodology for all public safety agencies. One of the greatest downfalls of not deploying a national network is the real potential for disparity among public safety entities. Agencies with the fiscal resources will likely deploy stand-alone networks while agencies with fewer resources would likely never see this technology. In the end, the goal should be to create a robust communications network for all public safety officials in preparation for the next emergency, because it is not a matter of if the emergency will occur but when. ■


1See for example, IACP Resolution “Support for Proposal to Allocate to Public Safety an Additional 30 MHz of Broadband Radio Spectrum in the Upper 700 MHz Band to Allow for Development of a New Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network,” 2006, (accessed July 13, 2009).
2Federal Communications Commission, Second Report and Order, 22 FCC Rcd 15289 (2007).
3Federal Communications Commission, “Service Rules for the 698-746, 747-762, and 777-792 MHz Bands: Implementing a Nationwide, Broadband, Interoperable Public Safety Network in the 700 MHz Band,” statement of Commissioner Michael J. Copps, FCC 08-128, (accessed July 14, 2009).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 8, August 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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