Public Safety Broadband!

As you probably know by now, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, and the President signed it into law on Wednesday, February 22, 2012.  Included in this bill as Title VI is a section that is of great importance to the Public Safety community. This section is entitled, “Public Safety Communications and Electromagnetic Spectrum Auctions.” It does not include everything the Public Safety community has been asking for, and it does include one requirement that will be difficult to swallow. In summary, the bill provides for the following:

1)     Reallocation of the 700-MHz D Block to Public Safety. In conjunction with the existing Public Safety broadband spectrum, there is now 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum for a nationwide Public Safety broadband network.

2)     $7 billion for the construction of the network with this money coming from future spectrum auctions.

  1. $135 million for state and local implementation (administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration or NTIA) to assist in this process
  2. $115 million for Next-Generation 911 grants (NG911)
  3. $100 million for research and development to be conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), with up to $200 million more depending on how much money is raised during the spectrum auctions

3)     Governance

  1. The NTIA is to establish the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), an independent authority within the NTIA that will hold the license for the D Block and the existing 10 MHz of broadband spectrum already allocated to Public Safety

4)     Board – FirstNet will be headed by a board consisting of

  1. Three federal members (Secretary of Homeland Security, Attorney General, Director of the Office of Management and Budget) and
  2. Twelve members appointed by the Secretary of Commerce (at least three representing state and local interests and three representing Public Safety)

This means that all of the work that has been done by and on behalf of Public Safety over the last five years has been rewarded with the spectrum, the funding needed to start building out the nationwide network, and funding to provide for governance of the network. It also means that Public Safety will have a say in this governance. This bill is a win since it doubles the amount of spectrum allocated to Public Safety for the construction and operation of the Nationwide Mission Critical Public Safety Broadband network. This network will first provide for data, image, and video capabilities to those in the field and later, perhaps, it will enable the use of on-network mission-critical voice (more on that later).

The spectrum giveback is the downside to the bill. This part of the law requires the giveback of the T-Band spectrum (470-512 MHz) that is occupied primarily by TV Channels 14 to 20 and is used by Public Safety on a shared basis. While it is shared, this spectrum has provided relief in thirteen metro areas of the United States by providing for additional narrowband voice communications systems. The bill gives those who now use the T-Band up to nine years to plan the move to the other spectrum and then two more years to implement the plan. The bill does not state which portion of the existing Public Safety spectrum they will have to move to though there will be funding available to assist with the relocation.

I want to note here that the Public Safety community fought hard not to have to give back any spectrum during the negotiations that have taken place over the past two-plus years. However, at the eleventh hour some members of Congress added the requirement that Public Safety give back some spectrum as a condition to receiving the D Block and funding.

The Public Safety community had no choice but to agree to this spectrum giveback for the good of the entire Public Safety community and to ensure that the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband system would have sufficient spectrum and funding.

During the past two-plus years, various members of Congress suggested that Public Safety would have to give back some spectrum. At first they were looking at ALL spectrum between 150 and 512 MHz. Those within the Public Safety community working on the issue convinced Congress that this was not feasible, nor was its next suggestion of giving back spectrum in the 420 to 470 MHz band. Before Congress settled on the T-Band, it had also proposed that Public Safety give back the entire 700 MHz narrowband spectrum. None of these options were viable, and as much as Public Safety tried to stay the course, at the end of the day, those within Congress who insisted on a spectrum giveback settled on the T-Band. It was NOT offered up by Public Safety and at no time did the Public Safety community agree to this giveback. However, it is in the bill and Public Safety, as a community, will have to look at all of the options available.

Who Is Impacted by the T-Band Giveback

The answer is any Public Safety agency that is using the 470-512 MHz frequency band in or around the following cities:

Boston, Los Angeles, New York
Chicago, Miami, Dallas/Ft. Worth
Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco/Oakland
Houston, Washington DC/Maryland/Virginia, Pittsburgh

For those into numbers, there are currently a total of 808 issued licenses in these cities and 34 are pending approval.

Where They Can Move

There is nothing in the law that requires those using the T-Band to migrate to 700 MHz narrowband. However, with all of the new 700 MHz systems being built, many regional in nature, if spectrum is available it would be the most logical choice. For those that have already asked my opinion on options, I have been recommending the following:

If your T-Band system is older and needs replacement in the near term

1)     Determine whether any 700 MHz narrowband channels are available in your area

  1. If there are, build the new system on 700 MHz instead of replacing your existing T-Band equipment
  2. Build out and accept the new system PRIOR TO moving your T-Band users to the new system

2)     If there are no new 700 MHz channels available today

  1. Wait for the narrowbanding deadline of January 1, 2013, and search for channels in the 150-170 MHz or 450-470 MHz band
  2. Look for available 800 MHz narrowband channels
  3. Wait until 2016 and apply for the new 700 MHz narrowband channels

If your T-Band system has already been narrowbanded and/or the equipment is newer

1)     Review what other narrowband channel options you have today on 700, 150, 450, and 800 MHz

  1. Review them again after narrowbanding deadlines have passed
  2. Consider building an overlay 700 MHz narrowband system over the course of the next five to seven years
    i.     This will enhance voice interoperability and make the transition easier when it is required
  3. If you are in the process of replacing your existing T-Band system with an upgraded one, as many areas are, I would advise that you continue on that path since the proposed funding to move T-Band systems to other portions of the spectrum won’t be available until the T-Band spectrum (or TV channels vacated by T-Band LMR users) is auctioned. A   lot can happen within Congress and the FCC over the next eleven years and this decision could be modified or changed after this year’s election or the 2016 election.

2)     Watch developments for the LTE nationwide broadband network and the introduction of push-to-talk over broadband as the network is developed over the next four to six years. It is possible that during this time mission-critical push-to-talk on the Public Safety broadband network will be proven to work and be effective. HOWEVER, please note that I said ON-NETWORK as opposed to off-network, normally referred to as talk-around, simplex, or tactical channels. We have no information on whether off-network voice will be supported over LTE. I am sure that some of the R&D funds set aside by this bill will be used to work on this issue. For additional information see my recent article on Voice Over LTE. (link)

The Public Safety community, led by the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) and APCO Worldwide, are working to find answers to several questions including funding availability and whether T-Band systems will be exempt from the 2013 deadline for narrowbanding. In reality, it will be some time before we have a reaction or direction from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on this issue so the best course of action is to wait until we have answers to these questions.

Back to Broadband

Now that Congress has passed the bill giving the D Block to Public Safety and $7 billion in funding, there is a lot of work to be done. First we will have to see how the NTIA moves forward, then how long it will take to get organized and form the group that will begin the network planning and build-out (FirstNet). I, for one, hope the NTIA will review all of the work that has been done by the Public Safety Communications Research program (PSCR), waiver recipients, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), the APCO Broadband Committee, and others.

Then of course is the issue of the federal funding. $7 billion may seem like a lot of money but it does not begin to be enough to build out the network nationwide. The total cost of the proposed network is not known, but AT&T and Verizon have invested about $30 billion each in their upgrades to LTE and they already had all of the cell sites and infrastructure. There are a number of options available to raise additional funding. In major metropolitan areas all of the broadband spectrum will be needed on a daily basis. However, in less populous areas what makes the most sense is to form private/public partnerships with existing wireless network operators or perhaps with rural power co-ops (which provide power to rural areas in 47 states today) and others interested in sharing the spectrum on a secondary basis, which is permitted by the law.

While the PSA and APCO have been focused on working with Congress, a significant amount of work has been going on in committees across the country. There is already activity by the waiver recipients on determining how to interconnect the waiver sub-networks; work by PSCR on network architecture, testing of network components, and network devices; NPSTC has been busy on many fronts; and the APCO Broadband Committee has been working on a suggested nationwide network architecture that could serve as a model for FirstNet. I am hopeful that the thousands of volunteer man hours (or people hours) that have been put into these projects won’t be ignored and will be considered as we move forward.

Other issues that must be resolved are when the FCC will issue the new license for all 20 MHz of spectrum, how the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) will transition the work it has done, and how it will hand over the license for the 10 MHz of Public Safety Broadband spectrum it now holds. There is also the issue of whether the waiver recipients will be permitted to build out on the full 20 MHz of broadband spectrum. Permitting this makes sense to me since the cost of building out a 20 MHz network as opposed to a 10 MHz network is negligible but having to go back and build out the additional 10 MHz of new broadband spectrum could cost some waiver jurisdictions additional funding.

There are many more issues that need to be addressed and they will be. I am hopeful that the Public Safety Alliance will continue to work on issues as we move forward. This organization, which was formed to show Public Safety unity, and APCO have been the two primary advocates for obtaining the D Block and funding, and these organizations have gained recognition in Washington DC so it seems logical to stay together and focus on the next steps in this process. The network won’t be built overnight. In my estimation, we have three to five years of hard work ahead of us as we build out this network, put together public/private partnerships, and gain experience from the first sub-networks that come online.

During this more than two-year adventure to convince Congress of the need for additional Public Safety broadband spectrum and funding, a number of Public Safety agencies supported the effort by making their leaders available to travel to DC, attend countless meetings, and spend many hours on conference calls. Organizations that do business with the Public Safety community supported the effort through financial contributions, technical expertise, and lobbying efforts, but not all of the commercial wireless network operators participated. There are too many to thank in this article, but they know who they are and what they did and they will have the Public Safety community’s gratitude for a long time.

There are some who were opposed to the D Block going to Public Safety for whatever reason and they did their best to convince Congress to let the FCC move forward with the D Block auction. Some federal agencies were not in favor of the D Block allocation either and their voices were also heard over the past few years. However, in the end, the law of the land now says that Public Safety has the D Block and funding, and it is my belief that everyone, regardless of which side they took in the arguments and discussions, thought their view to be valid. I hope all of this can be put behind us. This is not about one side winning and another side losing, it is now about moving forward to make the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband network a reality as quickly as possible. There is much to be done and some of those who helped Public Safety in its quest will expect to be rewarded, while some who opposed these efforts might be concerned that they could be discriminated against. The way I see it, some of those who had different ideas about the D Block can become great partners in moving this network forward and I, for one, will be looking at each organization not for the stance it took prior to the bill being passed, but as a potential partner going forward.

For my part I will keep writing and providing information in the Public Safety Advocate and I will continue to play whatever role I am asked to play in the next steps. The passing of the bill marks the end of Chapter One of this saga but there are many chapters yet to be written before the final one. Some of these we know about and some we will discover in the days to come. Today we have been empowered to move forward to turn the concept of a nationwide, fully interoperable, mission-critical Public Safety network into a reality.

Andrew M. Seybold

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