Nationwide public safety broadband network faces tough challenges

By all accounts, first responder emergency communications at the Boston Marathon performed well in response to the terrorist attack. However, the lack of interoperable public safety communications that hampered rescue efforts on September 11, 2001 and during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are also a part of our country's recent history. It's the reason Congress has set aside a special section of airwaves to accommodate a new nationwide public safety broadband network.

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 included a provision for a block of spectrum--known as the "D Block"--and reallocated it for public safety use. To that end, the Federal Communications Commission is currently seeking comment on several proposals regarding the deployment of a nationwide public safety broadband network in the 700 MHz band.

On paper, the plans for this network might seem feasible. Yet, a closer look reveals some major challenges to implementing this kind of public safety broadband network, not the least of which is obtaining the funds to build and maintain it. In 2010, The FCC estimated that a stand-alone broadband network would cost approximately $15 billion to construct. However, the cost of the network has risen in the three years since the last agency estimate. 

In addition, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act only authorized less than half of that amount for the construction of the network from the potential proceeds of "incentive auctions" of wireless airwaves. Starting in 2014, the FCC hopes to begin those auctions. But the agency is facing stiff resistance from broadcasters and government agencies that currently hold the licenses.

Even if money was no object--which is it is in the current fiscal environment of sequestration and runaway national debt--a new nationwide public safety broadband network faces significant technical challenges including ensuring the network's interoperability, reliability, and security, as well as creating a governance structure. Moreover, it could be years before this nationwide public safety broadband network is deployed.

A major technological hurdle is that emergency responders across the nation rely on land mobile radio (LMR) systems to gather and share information and coordinate their response efforts during emergencies. The problem is that these public safety communication systems are fragmented across thousands of federal, state, and local jurisdictions and often lack the ability to communicate across agencies and jurisdictions.

While the proposed public safety broadband network "would likely enhance interoperability and increase data transfer rates, it would not support mission critical voice capabilities for years to come, perhaps even 10 years or more," according to a February 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. "A broadband network could enable emergency responders to access video and data applications that improve incident response. Yet because the technology standard for the proposed broadband network does not support mission critical voice capabilities, first responders will continue to rely on their current LMR systems for the foreseeable future."

As a result, the GAO concluded that such a broadband network would only serve to supplement, rather than replace, current public safety communication systems. Unfortunately, the next time America faces a catastrophic event or disaster our country will continue to struggle with a national vulnerability in U.S. first responder emergency communications that just won't go away. - Greg (@Slabodkin)