It’s been several years since high-profile incidents
raised attention about public safety radio interoperability.
Now, it’s still a problem, but with a new twist.
Many in the first responder ranks, their communications directors and local, state and federal governments have been trying to “fix” the problem of interoperability between local, state and federal agencies in times of a major emergency and on local and regional levels in day-to-day operations.
Most police departments cannot communicate directly with the fire departments or EMS provider in the same community, much less units coming from other jurisdictions. This has been a nagging problem for the first responder community since long before 9/11 or Katrina, but no one outside of public safety was aware of it, let alone why interoperability has been a problem for all these years. After two major incidents, those who run the various levels of government decided that the problem needed to be fixed and we saw a flurry of activity.
For the past six or seven years, everyone who is anyone has been promising to fix this problem by using IP bridges between departments or installing Nextel or other commercial PTT services for secondary communications. Then, at some level it was decided that we needed a new nationwide broadband network for first responders. This, we were told, would fix all of the interoperability issues. It would be on the 700 MHz band adjacent to other first responder channels used for voice and would make use of commercial technologies that today serve more than 4 billion people in the world. Today’s public safety communications technologies are 30 or 40 years old, which keeps the price of two-way radio equipment higher than $500 and in most cases about $2,000 per unit. Further, it was said, since this new system would be shared with one or more commercial operator with first responders having priority, it would be funded by the commercial side of the wireless industry.
The Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) was founded to be the owner of the nationwide license for first responders but it was never federally funded, and the first attempt at auctioning the 700 MHz D Block was a flop. So, seven years later, there is a stimulus package with $7.2 billion for broadband services for all Americans. However, it doesn’t appear to have one red cent for either the PSST or the combined 700 MHz network. We are back to square one, starting all over again – except this time there is a twist.
To build 700 MHz broadband systems that operate in these blocks of spectrum, we will need chipsets for base stations and mobile and portable devices. There is a lot of 700 MHz spectrum next to the public safety spectrum that has been auctioned to Verizon Wireless, AT&T and numerous other wireless, cable and wireline companies so this should be easy. All chipmakers need to do is to include this 20 MHz of spectrum into every chipset they build for the 700 MHz band and bingo, we have inexpensive chips and less expensive radios for first responders.
Well, guess what? The folks who build the chips, at least the several I have talked with, have said they probably won’t build any for 3G technology in the 700 MHz band since the world is quickly moving toward LTE. Further, when they build chips for the 700 MHz band for LTE, they will only build for this portion of spectrum if there is a demand for it. Depending on your definition of first responders, that could mean anywhere from 3 million to 6 million devices – not enough, I am told. However, if a commercial network operator wins the auction and intends to deploy LTE on that band, the chipmakers might consider building this 20 MHz into their chips.
So not only are first responders sitting and waiting for something to happen with the 700 MHz D Block, once that is sorted out, the winner will have to decide if it wants to deploy 3G technologies. Only then will chipmakers decide whether or not there will be sufficient demand to build chips for the 700 MHz band. In reality, with all this uncertainty, most first responders have given up waiting and are moving ahead in different directions. Can you blame them?
I don’t design chips for a living, but I cannot imagine it would cost more than a couple of cents to include the entire U.S. 700 MHz band, including the D Block and the PSST licensed spectrum, into standard chipsets.
If this does not happen, it is likely that we will have the spectrum to solve the very real problem of interoperability, but the radios will cost too much for first responders to buy them. How about if just this once everyone involved took the attitude that it is time to give back to the people who risk their lives for us and spend a few dollars here and there to give them the tools they deserve and so desperately need.
Seybold heads Andrew Seybold, Inc., which provides consulting, educational and
publishing services. For more information, visit www.andrewseybold.com.
Filed Under: Infrastructure