Partnerships and Public Safety Broadband

The FCC originally believed that a private/public partnership between a commercial network operator that won the D Block at auction and the Public Safety Community with its own broadband spectrum would result in a nationwide network that would be shared by both and on which Public Safety could operate on a priority basis as the need for spectrum for incidents increased. However the D Block did not see a successful commercial bidder for a number of reasons, including the additional costs involved in building a shared network to Public Safety mission-critical standards as opposed to commercial standards.

Now Public Safety wants the D Block reallocated to Public Safety control and is perfectly willing to work with private partners in order to build out the network. These partnerships will be different from the ones envisioned by the FCC as they will most likely be regional in nature but they will accomplish the same thing in different ways. The result will be the same for the commercial partners but it will be far better for Public Safety, which will actually control the network and the assignment of priority access.

Different Types of Partnerships

It has always been the vision of the Public Safety Community to work with commercial wireless network operators to provide off-loading of non-emergency traffic onto commercial networks when needed, and to further work with commercial network operators with cell site sharing and even network backhaul and perhaps back-end services sharing. All of this is possible once the D Block has been reassigned to Public Safety and the nationwide (as opposed to national) governance organization is in place.

In the meantime, other partnerships are being formed between Public Safety vendors and commercial network operators and between Public Safety land mobile radio vendors and broadband infrastructure companies. The first of these vendor/network partnerships to be announced was between Motorola Solutions and Verizon Wireless. It is a non-exclusive agreement for the two companies to work together to provide better interoperability between Public Safety and commercial networks. Under this arrangement, Motorola provides network infrastructure and devices, and Verizon serves as a roaming partner when a user leaves the Public Safety network RF footprint, and cell site and back-haul partner for Public Safety.

More recently, AT&T and Harris formed a non-exclusive partnership that will provide a closer relationship between these two companies while better serving their Public Safety customers. This alliance is different from the Motorola-Verizon partnership as AT&T is taking the lead in LTE network build-out, leveraging its commercial LTE domain vendors in the construction of dedicated Public Safety networks that would be provided as a managed service. Unfortunately, some who read the press release announcing this partnership read it as a statement from AT&T Wireless that it considers its existing commercial network as being mission-critical. When I heard these comments from a few concerned Public Safety officials I contacted AT&T and asked about this partnership and, more specially, if it considers its network to be mission-critical. The answer was no, AT&T does not believe that its commercial network is mission-critical as defined by the needs of the Public Safety Community but that its new partner, Harris, did build mission-critical Public Safety land mobile radio equipment and that together their vision is to enable Public Safety customers to easily move from the Public Safety mission-critical broadband network to the AT&T broadband network(s).

Sometimes those who write press releases and those who try to explain what the release should convey to the world are not talking the same language. I have worked side-by-side with both AT&T and Verizon Wireless in the effort to have Congress reallocate the D Block and both of these providers have made it clear that while their wireless networks are as robust as they can possibly be in order to serve their commercial and consumer clients, neither provider believes that its network is up to the standards required by the Public Safety Community. They understand the differences and are offering their networks for use while the Public Safety broadband network is being built and after it has been deployed but ONLY to off-load non-essential, lower priority traffic in order to relieve potential congestion on the Public Safety broadband network.

Neither network provider offers Public Safety pre-emptive priority access to their commercial networks. In truth, no network operator would want to displace its own customers in favor of Public Safety during emergency incidents. There is always the possibility that the person whose call is terminated is trying to call 911 to report another emergency. It is unfortunate that the AT&T press release left a doubt in anyone’s mind that AT&T knows the capabilities and the limitations of its network (as do the other operators) when it comes to providing Public Safety voice and broadband services.

At the same time, the commercial network operators can work closely with their Public Safety equipment vendor partners to help make the move from the Public Safety network to the commercial network and back as seamless as possible. They can also assist the Public Safety vendors with a better understanding of the world of broadband wireless. While both worlds are basically the same, they are also very different. For years, the Public Safety Community has relied on voice-only systems that provide many voice capabilities that cannot be provided by commercial network operators, and the commercial network operators have, for a number of years, been providing business and consumer customers with wireless broadband access that has never before been available to the Public Safety Community.

During the past 2+ years that Public Safety has been trying to gain control of the 700-MHz D Block by asking Congress to reallocate it to Public Safety, several commercial broadband network operators, namely AT&T and Verizon, have helped educate both the Public Safety Community and the Public Safety vendors about the differences between land mobile radio voice and wireless broadband services. While both use the radio spectrum, they are based on different technologies. Simply because a person is conversant with one does not mean he/she will also be conversant in the other. Even the technical language used within each of these wireless communities is different, and it is always interesting to me to watch a commercial network engineer and a Public Safety communications engineer try to talk about wireless and fully understand what the other is saying.

Partnerships in General

The Public Safety Community has always been self-sufficient to a point. However, partnerships with federal government agencies, vendors, and those who assist Public Safety in its day-to-day activities and during emergencies (utility companies and even towing companies) have been important partners for Public Safety. Now that broadband for Public Safety is upon us, these partnerships are broadening. Commercial broadband operators, new vendors, existing vendors, private rural telcos, rural power companies and others are working together with the Public Safety Community to help make their jobs easier and safer, and to provide an even better level of service to those they serve.

Recently at the IACP conference in Chicago, I saw a demonstration of some great applications for the Public Safety Community. One was to help identify missing and exploited children, and another was to create a database of gang-related tattoos. The software vendor that is developing these applications is the FBI, and it is doing so for the good of the entire Public Safety Community.

Going forward, many different types of partnerships will be needed and welcomed by the Public Safety Community. Those who fight terrorism and crime, put out our fires, and treat and save our relatives when they are sick or injured need all of the support they can get through partnerships: Broadband is different from land mobile radio services. I applaud all of the organizations and companies that are forming such partnerships. They are doing so to increase their own business but they are also doing so because they know there are major differences between LMR and LTE and they are partnering with those who can help deliver both sets of services to the Public Safety Community. This is as it should be.

Andrew M. Seybold

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