Public Safety Advocate: Why Is the FCC Rushing to Strip Public Safety of Vital Spectrum?

About 4.9-GHz Spectrum

The 4.9-GHz band is 50 MHz of spectrum that was allocated to public safety in 2002 on the heels of the 9/11 attacks. This spectrum was set aside by the FCC Commissioners at the time to improve public-safety communications and address one of the major issues described in the 9/11 Commission Report. More than a year later, vendors were able to build WiFi-like equipment capable of operating in this band. 

Starting in 2018, the FCC issued a series of Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) claiming this spectrum was underutilized and announcing its intention to license other types of users in the same spectrum. The public-safety community responded to each and every subsequent NPRM by asserting that preserving the 4.9-GHz spectrum for public-safety-use-only is still the highest and best use of the spectrum. 

After the FCC issued a sixth NPRM without taking any action, the public-safety community once again responded with its comments, again affirming that public safety needs the spectrum for its communications requirements and still the FCC did not take action. 

Why Is There a Rush Now? 

A few months ago, a number of public-safety professionals, most of whom were directly involved in the creation of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) known as FirstNet, formed the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (thepssa.org). They immediately began working with public-safety organizations and the FCC in an effort to convince the FCC Commissioners that, once again, the highest and best use for this 50 MHz of spectrum is for it to remain with the public-safety community. 

Soon after the PSSA was founded and began its campaign, the FCC Chairman stated in a blog that he would introduce a rulemaking at the FCC’s open Commission meeting at the end of September (this month). This rulemaking, which is now public and has been reviewed by many, does not include anything taken from the multitude of comments the FCC received during the first six notices of proposed rulemaking. In a total departure, the Chairman is now proposing that the Commission vote on a rulemaking that would assign this spectrum to each state and allow each state to lease the spectrum to a master lease-holder. This lease-holder would then control how the spectrum will be used moving forward.

This new rulemaking does not provide for any new public-safety use of 4.9-GHz spectrum and it leaves use decisions up to each master spectrum lease-holder in each state. While some states might recognize the importance of this spectrum for public safety, others might see this as a revenue opportunity, lease the spectrum, and not worry about who will use it for what purposes.  

Why Now?

I have to wonder what the FCC is trying to do at this month’s FCC open meeting. At this time, the public-safety community is heavily engaged in protecting us on many different fronts including the Covid-19 pandemic, horrendous wildfires, an abnormal number of hurricanes, and civil unrest with rioting and looting. Yet this month, the FCC intends to make matters even more difficult for public safety by taking away roughly 50 MHz of spectrum it has been using since 2002. What is the rush to take back spectrum that is needed today and, more importantly, that will be needed to accommodate wireless technology advances tomorrow? Why now when so many issues threaten to overwhelm the first-responder community? Why now when public safety is facing difficult challenges on multiple fronts? #Whatstherush? 

Wireless technology is advancing quickly and radio spectrum is tough to come by. Public safety cannot afford to lose any of its spectrum. When it needed new spectrum for a nationwide public-safety broadband network, it took almost ten years of working with Congress, the FCC, and the Executive Branch to finally acquire spectrum for FirstNet, today’s broadband network dedicated to first responders. The outlook for adding more spectrum is poor, even as the public-safety need for expanded communications continues to grow. 

Public safety is already being pushed to its limits. Why did today’s FCC decide to take spectrum away from the community charged with protecting life and property during the many crises we are facing? The FCC will vote on the 4.9-GHz take-back and reallocation on September 30, 2020. Why now? Why can’t this wait? What is the sudden urgency?

Public safety needs your support today! Let the FCC Commissioners know this matter does not have to be decided today and if they proceed, their action will greatly diminish our ability to provide our public-safety professionals with the best possible communications capabilities now and into the future. 

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

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1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: Why Is the FCC Rushing to Strip Public Safety of Vital Spectrum?"

  1. The false narrative by the FCC thinking the band is underutilized is largely due to the way the FCC allocated/licensed the spectrum from the beginning. (Our local noise floor and active local use agreements disproves this false narative.) It allowed licensees to get ONE “regional” license making it look like there is ONE user (or ONE site, or ONE system). In some cases, the 4.9GHz was used for multiple point-to-point microwave hops (under ONE user), in other cases there were one-to-many (point-to-many-points) – again under ONE user, and in other cases regional WiFi-like networks were set up for multiple field users with multiple hot-spots (but shown as ONE user).

    Then, there was discussion that 4.9GHz may be useful by FirstNet for off-network, peer-to-peer comms for when (not if) FirstNet units could not reach the network, but could “see” a peer. But that concept seems dead based on international (and flawed) standards.

    Recently, FirstNet held a webinar and hinted that FirstNet (dot-Gov, with dot-Com not far behind) would “manage” 4.9GHz for us. Based on the history of FirstNet, one could think that the spectrum will be used for ONE product/method and controlled by ONE vendor…exclusively. Past behavior predicts future behavior.

    More recently, the Commission is leaning toward a state solution. This could be an even worse scenario since public safety does not look at boundaries, and inter-state public safety – or even mutual aid – could be negatively affected. If you are in a state where utility monopolies are mentioned heavily in political bribery schemes, and there is a profit motive at the very least, 4.9GHz would indeed become fodder for further corruption. Again, past behavior predicts future behavior.

    Let’s not repeat past bad behavior before 4.9GHz becomes as sewer-like as public safety VHF.

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