The slow march toward interoperable communications

A brief history of the effort to build a nationwide interoperable broadband communications network for public safety in the D-Block of 700MHz spectrum

A dozen public safety entities (and one private sector concern) have filed waiver requests with the FCC seeking permission to build their own regional wireless broadband networks in 700 MHz. According to FCC documents, these waiver applicants are “seeking authority to deploy public safety broadband systems on a local or regional basis” in the 10 megahertz of 700 MHz public safety broadband spectrum currently licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust.

This action is being taken in response to a mounting frustration among many in the public safety community that nothing significant has been done to begin the construction of a national, interoperable, public safety broadband data network.

Why would these regional groups — some are cities, some are states, some are widespread regions comprised of multiple counties and cities — be so frustrated that they’d to want to “go it alone” on building their communications network? It’s helpful to know that this issue doesn’t date back just to February and March 2008, when the D-Block’s famous failure to sell at FCC Auction vaulted the matter into the consciousness of people up and down the chain of command.

This is a nearly 15-year-old fight. Let’s review the milestones.

— The Appropriations Committed of the United States House of Representatives directs the Federal Communications Commission to resolve the fact that there is a serious deficiency in wireless spectrum allocated to public safety. The FCC, with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), then establishes the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC).

1996 — PSWAC releases its report on the current and future spectrum needs of public safety agencies. Among the many conclusions in its 805-page report, PSWAC says:

• “Radio-based technologies are critical to the effective discharge of Public Safety agencies’ obligations, providing a lifeline connecting Public Safety officials to assistance and delivering vital information to help in their critical mission.”
• “The radio frequencies allocated for Public Safety use have become highly congested in many, especially urban, areas.”
• “The ability of officials from different Public Safety agencies to communicate with each other is limited.”
• “A wide variety of technologies — both existing and under development — hold substantial promise to reduce danger to Public Safety personnel and to achieve greater efficiencies in the performance of their duties. Broadband data systems, for example, offer greater access to databases and information that can save lives and contribute to keeping criminals off the street.”
• “Unless immediate measures are taken to alleviate spectrum shortfalls and promote interoperability, Public Safety agencies will not be able to adequately discharge their obligation to protect life and property in a safe, efficient, and cost effective manner.”

It is a gut-wrenching irony that the date of the 1996 PSWAC report was September 11th of that year.

1997 — The FCC is directed to allocate 24 MHz of spectrum (to be vacated by broadcast television stations with the implementation of digital television) to public safety.

1998 — The FCC creates the Public Safety National Coordinating Committee (NCC) to recommend rules for the use of that 24 MHz swath of spectrum in the 700 MHz band.  It would take five years for the NCC to issues its recommendation that half be designated for voice channels and half for data channels.

The Middle Ages
June 2007 — The Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) is created. Comprised of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and the International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA), the PSST soon becomes the voice of public safety agencies in Washington D.C.

July 2007 — The FCC issues a “Report & Order” that establishes some significant rules impacting the creation of the national interoperable broadband communications network. Among them, a single nationwide broadband license for the national network will be made to an as yet unnamed Public Safety Broadband Licensee (PSBL); a Public/Private Partnership will be formed for a Shared Wireless Broadband Network (SWBN); the PSBL must negotiate the Network Sharing Agreement (NSA) with the winner of the FCC’s D-Block Auction (held in conjunction with the auction of a lot more 700 MHz real estate for commercial use) in early 2008.

This effectively creates the Public/Private Partnership concept for the D-Block.

October 2007 — The Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) submits its application to the FCC requesting it be named the Public Safety Broadband Licensee (PSBL). Little more than a month later, the FCC names PSST to be the nationwide Public Safety Broadband Licensee (PSBL).

March 2008 — The D-Block debacle. Despite the fact that the FCC Auction for 700 MHz spectrum raised nearly $20 billion — nearly twice the intended target — the D-Block garners just one bid in the opening round of the auction. After that, the airwaves both literally and figuratively go dead. Shortly after the close of the Auction, the FCC orders that no action be taken on the D-Block “until further notice.”

November 2008 — Delays related to changes in leadership at the FCC, as well as a request by Congress to the FCC that all matters related to the D-Block be deferred until the start of next Presidential Administration in January, halt any substitutive progress for the duration of the winter months.

Recent Developments
May 2009 — One month after a meeting that included participants from organizations such as Major Cities Police Chiefs, Major County Sheriffs, International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Sheriffs’ Association, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, APCO hosts a follow-up meeting in Washington, D.C.

From that meeting a somewhat unified effort emerges. These organizations will press Congress to remove the auction requirements from the D-Block spectrum and reallocate that spectrum to the nationwide Public Safety Broadband License. This would effectively double the PSBL from 10 MHz to 20 MHz with the stoke of a pen.

June 2009 — Following the APCO meeting in May, various organizations begin to file their waiver requests with the FCC. Seeking an FCC waiver are the City of Boston, the Bay Area (the City and County of San Francisco, the City of Oakland, and the City of San Jose), the State of New Jersey, the City of New York, the District of Columbia, the State of New York, the City of Chesapeake (Virginia), the City of San Antonio in conjunction with area counties Bexar and Comal, the State of New Mexico, the State of North Dakota, the City of Charlotte (North Carolina), and several counties and the City of Cedar Rapids (known as the Iowa Coalition). In addition, one commercial entity, Flow Mobile, has filed a petition.

July 2009 — There is a rapidly growing consensus among many police chiefs, fire chiefs, city administrators, and emergency preparedness planners the United States — not just those who are waiver applicants — that the FCC should move quickly to grant at least some of the waivers for local build-outs. These local build-outs would become the tip of the spear in the larger effort to create the long-awaited national network.

Some say that that the early build out projects can be shown and shared with municipalities and regions that follow. Others call these waiver applicants “pilot projects” that will do a lot of learning along the way that will benefit those that follow.

August 2009 — During a town hall meeting held during the 75th annual APCO Conference and Expo in Las Vegas, hundreds of communications professionals talk about the waiver requests, the fate of the national public safety broadband network, and next steps that may be taken in the near future.

The town hall meeting is called because the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC had, just days earlier, announced a call for public comment on the aforementioned thirteen petitions for waiver. The comment period is now open — the FCC is accepting comments up to and including October 16, 2009.  The opportunity to reply to submitted comments is between then and November 16, 2009.  Any entity with a concern or observation on the matter is encouraged to send their remarks to the FCC.  Find out how to submit your comments in this Police1 Communications Tip

Crystal Ball Time
That brings us to today. It seems clear that the plan as it originally had been conceived — to award a single nationwide commercial license in the upper 700 MHz spectrum band to private sector bidder, an entity that would then enter into an FCC-approved network sharing agreement with the PSST — has now been shelved, if not scuttled. So what’s next?

Police1 has recently heard some very intriguing “off the record” rumblings that more states and cities are getting ramped up to follow suit with their own waiver requests to the FCC. There are some very significant ramifications to this turn of events, if it bears out as we’ve been told it might. We want to know what you’re hearing from the leadership in your area. Send us an e-mail, or add your comments below.

Stay tuned...

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