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Back to Archives | Back to June 2012 Contents 

Technology Talk

The Future of Public Safety Communications: Facts and Fiction

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

or many years, the IACP has been one of the leading public safety organizations in developing strategies and positions to improve public safety communications.

The Facts

In 1995, the IACP, working with other major public safety organizations such as the National Sheriffs’ Association, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International (APCO), began an educational campaign to explain the issues for much needed additional radio spectrum for public safety. As a result of that education, in 1997, Congress passed legislation directing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate 24 megahertz (MHz) of spectrum for public safety use in the 700 MHz band. This spectrum was designated to be abandoned by television broadcasters who would be converting from analog to digital signals. Each analog television channel was 6 MHz in width, and TV channels 63, 64, 68, and 69 were allocated by the FCC for public safety use.

In July 2003, the Public Safety Coordination Committee, an FCC Federal Advisory Committee in which I participated as the IACP representative, recommended that the FCC designate half of the 24 MHz of spectrum for public safety narrowband voice channels and half for wideband data channels.

In July 2007, the FCC issued an order changing the channel assignments. The 12 MHz of narrowband voice channels that were previously broken into four 3 MHz groups were consolidated into two 6 MHz groups and relocated within the public safety allocation. The 12 MHz of wideband spectrum that was previously broken into two 4 MHz groups and two 1 MHz guardbands was changed to two 5 MHz broadband groups and two 1 MHz guardbands.

Another outcome of the 2007 FCC Order was the issuance of an FCC nationwide public safety broadband license for the 10 MHz of broadband spectrum to a newly formed not-for-profit corporation called the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). The IACP, IAFC, APCO, and the International Municipal Signal Association founded the PSST, which consists of representatives of 15 national public safety organizations. As the IACP representative, I have served as the elected chairman of the PSST since it was formed.

On February 17 of this year, after almost five years of ongoing discussions, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, within which is a section titled Public Safety Communications and Electromagnetic Spectrum Auctions. President Obama signed this bill on February 22, 2012, and it is now known as Public Law 112-96.

The legislation sets the foundation for the development of a new Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) based on Long Term Evolution (LTE) broadband technology that already is being used by several commercial carriers. It provides an additional 10 MHz of broadband spectrum (upper 700 MHz band D-Block) allocated for public safety so that we have the spectrum necessary to make efficient use of LTE technology. It also provides $7 billion in federal provided funding that will be realized from future incentive-based auctions of spectrum and not from tax-based funds. The legislation establishes new governance for the NPSBN called the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which will have wide discretion to develop and implement the NPSBN. The secretary of commerce has the responsibility to name 12 members to the FirstNet Board, and the legislation requires that to be done no later than August 20, 2012.

One disappointment in the legislation is the requirement for public safety to abandon, in nine years, its use of the T-Band (470 MHz–512 MHz) that is being used extensively in a number of major cities and major urban areas. This is a major issue for public safety that will require further discussion.

The NPSBN is expected to have greater reliability, security, and coverage than is currently provided by commercial carriers while at the same time giving public safety access to the latest commercial technologies. Public safety will manage priority access within its own network without competing for spectrum resources on the public networks that are often crowded and unavailable during major events and emergencies.

The Fiction

There is misinformation circulating relative to the capabilities of the LTE broadband technology and the NPSBN’s ability to replace the current public safety, mission-critical, land mobile, two-way radio systems. The NPSBN is intended to bring new data capabilities to public safety, not replace current land mobile voice systems. Although we should not rule out the future capabilities of broadband technology, current and envisioned LTE commercial broadband capabilities are not able to replace current land mobile voice systems.

There is a big difference between cellphones using full duplex mode (meaning they transmit data in two directions simultaneously so both parties can talk at once) and typical land mobile, two-way radios that use simplex mode (meaning they have push-to-talk technology that allows only one person to talk at a time). Simplex mode can be used through a repeater system called simulcasting, which is a network-centric approach or direct mode (one unit to another unit or one unit to many units) without a network. This is commonly referred to as talk-around mode or tactical mode and is often the lifeline of public safety responders when they cannot or do not want to access a network.

Many citizens and local, state, and federal officials, appointed and elected, have the false idea that current public safety radios can be replaced by cellphone-type or broadband devices. That is not true. Current mission-critical, public safety, land mobile voice systems are the lifeline of public safety responders and cannot be abandoned when there is no path forward that promises they can be replaced by emerging network-centric broadband technologies.

Please contact me at if I can provide further help to address this misinformation. ♦

Please cite as:

Harlin R. McEwen, "The Future of Public Safety Communications: Facts and Fiction," Technology Talk, The Police Chief 79 (June 2012): 70.

Click to view the digital edition.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 6, June 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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