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Disputes weigh on proposed public safety network

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks exposed the difficulties that public safety responders had in communicating with each other, Congress and regulators agreed that the country needed a high-speed, wireless network connecting firefighters, paramedics and police officers. Since then, the nation has seen Hurricane Katrina, the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, wildfires in Southern California and countless other disasters and emergencies. But there is still no emergency responder network.

Now, as the Federal Communications Commission promotes a plan it introduced in March to create an interoperable broadband wireless network for emergency workers, disagreement among public safety officials, regulators, and companies appears to be slowing the effort. And that has the FCC's public safety bureau chief, Jamie Barnett, concerned.

"There is an urgency to do this because we have a brief technology window," Barnett said during a wireless public safety panel at the New America Foundation on Wednesday.

He said that as wireless carriers begin to roll out their next generation broadband networks later this year, public safety officials have the opportunity to pair up with a commercial partner to build out their own networks. If delayed, the cost of building the public safety network could rise to nearly $16 billion, Barnett told Reuters in an interview Wednesday.

But there is much disagreement over how such a network should be developed, according to the panel, which included representatives from the public safety community, handset maker Motorola and wireless carrier T-Mobile. At issue is the so-called D Block, a segment of the 700 megahertz band of airwaves that the FCC wants to auction to commercial carriers next year. Delaying the auction, the FCC said, could greatly raise the cost of the build-out, which is expected to run about $6.5 billion if the project gets off the ground next year, Barnett told Reuters.

The FCC said the 10 megahertz already allotted to public safety groups would be enough to handle communications needs. Emergency responders would be able to use roaming agreements with other networks during times of disaster for extra capacity, according to the FCC plan.

However, the public safety community also wants the FCC to make the D block's 10 megahertz available to them, giving them a total of 20 megahertz for a more robust network. AT&T supports the public safety community's proposal, saying that reallocating that spectrum to emergency workers is the most cost effective path to building an network for first responders.

Analysts, however, speculate that AT&T's position comes from a desire to keep the 10 megahertz of spectrum out of the hands of a competitor such as T-Mobile. A recent wireless competition report from the FCC showed that Verizon Wireless and AT&T enjoyed a growing concentration of market power.

After the FCC blocked the wireless giants earlier this year from getting licenses through the deal that took Reston-based SkyTerra private, some analysts predicted the agency would also exclude AT&T and Verizon from the D block auction. But, if the public safety community were given all that spectrum, some analysts and consumer groups speculate the biggest carriers could try to lease those airwaves from the public safety groups in areas where they don't have coverage.

"The conventional wisdom has seemed to be that a direct public safety allocation would keep another competitor out of the 700 megahertz band and potentially open up commercial opportunities with public safety for Verizon and/or AT&T in light of their dominance of the 700 auction of 2008," said Jeffrey Silva, a policy director at Medley Global Advisors.

By Cecilia Kang  |  June 3, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
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While this is all great and necessary there are other areas of our infrastructure and planning that could have saved many more lives during Katrina. In fact most of the deaths and destruction in New Orleans were caused by shoddily built and maintained levees by the Army Corp of Engineers. Katrina came and went on Aug. 29th and the levees broke on Aug. 30th.

In addition the Airport, Amtrak, and Greyhound all shut down 2 days prior to Katrina's arrival and a day before the mandatory evacuation. These all involved human error rather than lack of technology.

Paul Harris
Author, Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina"

Posted by: patriotpaul | June 4, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

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