One thing the Public Safety Spectrum Trust will need to do is back off from
the notion the network must be deployed from the start using 4G.
The logical approach is to start with 3G.
Failure to attract an acceptable bid for the D-block license in last year’s 700 MHz spectrum auction blew a hole in hopes for the long-awaited national public safety broadband network. The Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) has the spectrum, but the state and local entities it represents are for the most part in a severe financial squeeze.
It’s hard for a city to justify contributing a few million to achieve inter-agency communications compatibility when it is struggling to pay for basic operations of those police and fire departments. Thus was born the idea of the Shared Wide Band Network, a single network operating as a public/private joint venture on the combined D-block and PSST spectrum.
It was certainly an innovative approach to spectrum licensing, and hopes in the FCC ran high until the D-block laid an egg in the spectrum auction. Potential bidders feared that the aggressive rural buildout schedule and performance requirements dictated by the PSST would cost more than a D-block operator would likely make in commercial revenues and whatever fees could be wrested from public safety users.
To be sure, the FCC and PSST have not given up on the idea of a shared commercial/public safety network. A new D-block license auction likely will be held some time this year, probably with licensing on a regional rather than nationwide basis (but with a requirement for nationwide compatibility). And it is quite possible that the advantages of such a network, mainly improved reliability and security, will spark heightened interest among certain commercial and government enterprise customers and thus reduce the financial risks for potential D-block operators. But these are not good times for large-scale private investments, and there is a very real possibility that if the PSST wants to build a nationwide network any time soon, it will have to do so on its own.
The financial situation for state and local governments has only gotten worse in recent months, so any funding for a public safety wireless network will have to come from the federal government. That would have been politically impossible last year, but the new administration in Washington is calling for massive public works spending to stimulate the flagging economy. Like repairing bridges, the design and deployment of a nationwide public safety network could create huge numbers of new jobs, including many in the hard-pressed manufacturing sector. Most importantly, with a little cooperation from the PSST, money for their network could be spent to good effect quickly.
What the PSST will have to do to make the public safety network an attractive target for early stimulus spending is to back off from its insistence that the network be deployed from the start using 4G air interface technologies. Despite what its backers may claim, neither LTE nor mobile WiMAX are ready for large scale deployment. 3G technologies, on the other hand, are sufficiently mature that they can be engineered and deployed with a very high probability of success. The logical approach for the PSST is to do an initial deployment using 3G, with the expectation that the network will transition to a 4G technology when one has demonstrated stability and reliability in commercial operations.
BENEFITS OF 3G
Besides allowing for rapid deployment and the spending that goes with it, initial use of 3G will provide other benefits. For one, it likely will make possible the interim use of existing commercial 3G networks for many public safety applications that could then be easily transferred as the public safety network, using the same basic air interface, is deployed. All manner of 3G user devices are widely available at low cost, so startup investments for cash-strapped agencies will be minimal. And use of a proven technology should appeal to the general (and entirely appropriate) conservatism of most public safety entities, particularly those of smaller jurisdictions.
Which 3G technology? The logical choice would seem to be EV-DO. First, a minimal EV-DO deployment would require less than 25% of the PSST spectrum, so eventual 4G overlay could be achieved with a minimum of disruption. UMTS with HSPDA, the competing 3G technology, would require a commitment of essentially the entire PSST broadband spectrum. Of course, a single EV-DO channel won’t deliver all of the capacity the PSST wants from its network, but it should be plenty to support basic communications needs even in the largest metro areas.
Might a 3G public safety deployment become an albatross “legacy network” in a few years when 4G becomes mature? I don’t think so. For one thing, useful coverage for 3G is likely to be considerably greater, so in rural areas it may actually be a better choice for mobile applications. Also, with a workable 3G system in place the overlay of 4G can be done on an “as required” basis in specific areas where needed, reducing overall capital requirements for network expansion while sparing smaller agencies the costs of user device conversions. With both 3G and 4G in use, nationwide compatibility would require dual-mode user devices, but those will probably also be required for commercial networks when 4G first gets deployed.
The other thing the PSST should do to encourage federal spending for its network is to begin development of open standards for special protocols and operational procedures required by its constituent agencies. Large scale engineering and planning for the network, to say nothing of procurement of infrastructure equipment, can’t really get under way until these items are at least somewhat nailed down. Providing an open technical forum for all involved parties will also help assure that the needs of major players like the New York Police Department are fully addressed.
The dream of a privately financed Shared Wide Band Network may still be alive, but realizing a common nationwide public safety network may be too important to rely on it. The alternative of federal financing appears feasible if the PSST can make the case that it is ready to move quickly and effectively. Maybe not with the network it ultimately wants, but with one it can build right now.
Drucker is president of Drucker Associates.
He may be contacted at [email protected].
Filed Under: Infrastructure