Public Safety Advocate: Meet the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA)

Those who have followed public-safety communications over the past dozen or so years probably know about the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and the Public Safety Alliance (PSA). While created for different reasons, these two organizations worked closely together during the four-year run-up to the passage of the bill that created FirstNet in 2012. 

The PSST was formed as a public-safety not-for-profit so it could qualify to be designated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the license holder for the first nationwide public-safety broadband spectrum, which at the time was 5 MHz X 5 MHz (10 MHz total) that had been converted from what was then called “wide-band spectrum.” The FCC issued the license to the PSST in 2007, six years before FirstNet. Two years later in 2009, the PSST and the PSA endorsed the broadband technology known as Long-Term Evolution (LTE) or 4G to be used for the Nationwide Public-Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). 

Later in 2009 after several meetings with the Major City Chiefs Association and others, the organization that became known as the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) was formed. The PSA brought together sheriffs, police, fire, and EMS chiefs and officers. As it gained attention, many organizations including the IACP, IAFC, MCCA, NSA, MCSA, NPSTC, APCO, National Governors Association, United States Conference of Mayors, and others joined the PSA. The PSA was told by some Members of Congress that it would fail in its mission to gain additional broadband spectrum for a nationwide public-safety system and funding to build it. 

The PSA, along with its partner organizations and the PSST, viewed that statement as a challenge and spent the next four years working with Congress, the Executive Branch, and the FCC and came away not only with the first 10 MHz of spectrum, but with an additional 10 MHz of spectrum known as the D Block for a total of 20 MHz of prime 700-MHz, nationwide broadband spectrum, some funding, and more funds for research and development. 

The premise of the PSA was that if public safety truly wanted to succeed, the necessary steps would best be taken by those who needed and wanted the spectrum and could truly speak for the public-safety community about its wants and needs rather than some lobbyists who would charge a lot of money the PSA did not have. 

Since FirstNet was created and the build-out is about to meet the five-year network construction requirements, other actions taken by the FCC have continued to negatively impact the public-safety community. Over the last four or so years, the FCC has passed several rules that have or may soon prove detrimental not only to the public-safety community but also to other agencies and companies whose communications systems should be considered critical in nature. 

The primary reason many Public Safety Alliance founders, members, and supporters have come together again to form the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA) and are reaching out to others is because the 50-MHz swath of spectrum allocated for use by the public-safety community since 2002 is in jeopardy. The current FCC is claiming this spectrum is being underutilized by the public-safety community, citing the small number of licenses it has granted for agencies to use this spectrum. 

Known as the 4.9-GHz band, today this spectrum is used primarily by public-safety agencies for point-to-point WiFi-like systems for cameras, radio control, and other functions needed for command and control. The FCC’s own licensing guidelines cause the band to appear to be little used. Historically, FCC licenses in the 4.9-GHz band are mostly geographic for an entire city, county, or other geographic area. Typical FCC geographic licenses usually require the number of base stations, mobile units, and handheld units to be specified in the license. In some parts of the United States, when a public-safety agency requests an additional radio channel, it must prove the channel will be used by a large number of units. However, because the FCC chose to license the 4.9-GHz spectrum on a geographic basis without requiring the number of agencies and units to be specified, there is no easy way to determine how many agencies are actually using the spectrum and how many devices are being used in the 50 MHz of the 4.9-GHz band. 

Enter the PSSA

Over the last few years, the FCC has issued a total of six “Notices of Proposed Rule Making” or NPRMs affecting the 4.9-GHz public-safety band. Meanwhile, the FCC recently granted a huge amount of 6-GHz spectrum on a secondary basis for unlicensed users and it has more in its sights. The FCC appears to be considering allowing non-public-safety users to occupy the spectrum either alongside public safety or in place of public safety. 

The Pubic Safety Spectrum Alliance, hosted by the Public Safety Broadband Technology Association (PSBTA), was formed to lead efforts to retain exclusive use of this spectrum for the public-safety community. The announcement of the formation of the PSSA presented three guiding principles for the organization:

  • Protect and preserve 4.9-GHz nationwide spectrum for public-safety use
  • Allocate the 4.9-GHz spectrum to The FirstNet Authority on behalf of public safety
  • Require The FirstNet Authority to develop a spectrum plan for the 50 MHz of public-safety spectrum at 4.9 GHz. This plan would call for the continued support and protection of existing public-safety licensees while also enabling a portion of the spectrum to be used for 5G technologies

The PSSA’s goal is for The FirstNet Authority to hold a license for the entire 50 MHz of 4.9-GHz spectrum identical to the FCC-issued nationwide license to the PSST and then FirstNet for 700-MHz Band-14 public-safety broadband spectrum. The FirstNet Authority, as detailed above, would be responsible for ensuring existing 4.9-GHz public-safety users continue to be supported while some of the band is set aside for public-safety 5G services. 

The FirstNet Authority would determine how the band is divided after input from the public-safety community and, in particular, the Public Safety Advisory Committee, which advises The FirstNet Authority Board of Directors. 

The bottom line is that the PSSA believes those who hold the spectrum strings do not fully understand the needs of the public-safety and critical-communications communities as is evidenced by recent spectrum auctions and actions that tend to favor commercial and unlicensed users seeking access to the limited radio spectrum. 

The PSSA welcomes input concerning its activities. You can read much more about the PSSA, its members, and their plans for action by visiting ThePSSA.org, and you can also join them there. 

While the PSSA has been formed based on the specific need to keep the 4.9-GHz spectrum allocated exclusively for public safety, it will continue its activities surrounding public-safety spectrum going forward.  If you missed its live webinar on Wednesday, August 12, 2020, you can replay it by visiting. I encourage you to support the PSSA and lend your assistance to pursuing its goal of keeping the 4.9-GHz spectrum in the hands of the public-safety community by having it licensed to The FirstNet Authority.

I also encourage you to stay in touch with the PSSA as other matters of spectrum that require the public-safety community to speak with one voice arise. The Public Safety Alliance proved that the public-safety community can accomplish it goals when it comes together as a community. I believe that driven by many of the same people and organizations, the PSSA will succeed in its mission. 

Winding Down

The pandemic is still creating havoc for our first-responder community, nurses, doctors, and hospitals. In the meantime, they are dealing with tropical storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, a recent earthquake on the east coast, and wildfires in Texas, Arizona, California, and other states. So far, thanks to FirstNet providing better communications than ever before, public safety has been able to respond to and assist with incidents even when they have run concurrently.

While Land Mobile Radio (LMR) has always been and will continue to be the lifeline for the first-responder community, broadband services, specifically those provided by FirstNet (Built with AT&T), add a level of redundancy and provide communications between agencies that had never before been possible. 

Yet there is still a missing element that would complete today’s public-safety communications and that element is updated 9-1-1 services known as Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911). Some agencies have already upgraded to NG911, and some have begun by adding text to 9-1-1. Now we need a nationwide push to make NG911 services available to all citizens since we are still waiting for Congress to act and fund the cost of implementing NG911. 

In my estimation, it is extremely important to install NG911 upgrades in all Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) and Public-Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). Now that FirstNet is mostly up and running, these agencies have access to additional voice services and text, data, video, and image content. The addition of NG911 provides the capability to manage incoming calls with attached text, data, video, and image files, but the funnel that feeds the FirstNet pipeline is mostly missing in action.

NG911 must be implemented nationwide and ways must be found to quickly vet incoming data and send it out over FirstNet to prepare first responders on their way to incidents and, in some cases, alert them to watch for suspect vehicle license plate numbers captured in photos taken by citizens and sent to the ECC.

It is imperative that we convince Members of Congress to act on NG911 and also repeal the T-Band giveback. Both are critical to providing public-safety with the communications tools that will help with performing its tasks quickly and more efficiently, which will result in citizens’ and first responders’ lives being saved. Formation of the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA) demonstrates how public safety comes together when results are needed in situations that involve 4.9 GHz, the T-Band, NG911, and more. Public safety is unified on all these pending matters. To succeed, the public-safety community must continue to speak up and push for results before the end of this year. 

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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