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FCC Turns to Private Sector For Public Safety

The lesson of 9/11 for civilians and first responders can be stated simply: in the new age of terror, they -- we -- are the primary targets. The losses America suffered that day demonstrated both the gravity of the terrorist threat and the commensurate need to prepare ourselves to meet it. -- 9/11 Commission Report (2004)

Nearly six years after the terrorist attacks on the United States, the government is finally responding to what was obvious to all first responders on that horrific day in 2001: the lack of interoperable communications cost lives.

That lack of interoperability was not lost on the 9/11 Commission, as one of its 41 recommendations to Congress included making more spectrum available for first responders to build a nationwide, IP-based interoperable network.

In late 2005, Congress did exactly that, pressuring broadcasters to leave their 700 MHz analog spectrum as part of the digital television (DTV) transition set for Feb. 17, 2009. The spectrum is as ideal for wireless networks as it is for broadcasters since the airwaves penetrate walls and travel great distances.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to sell the vacated spectrum during a January auction that could bring in more than $15 billion in bids. One of the prime blocks up for auction is located next to the spectrum dedicated for public safety. The FCC plans to pair the two blocks for the building of a wireless first-responder network.

While most of the media hype surrounding the auction has centered on whether Google will make a run at some of the commercial spectrum, the building of a nationwide first-responder network remains a critical aspect of the spectrum sale.

Open access isn't only FCC experiment

The [NY Fire Department] ordered both towers fully evacuated by 8:57, but this guidance was not conveyed to 911 operators and FDNY dispatchers, who for the next hour often continued to advise civilians not to self-evacuate, regardless of whether they were above or below the impact zones. -- 9/11 Commission Report.

As Congress in 2005 originally saw it, the 700 MHz auction would offer not only enough spectrum to build a new national network to deliver advanced commercial wireless services, but also have enough leftover spectrum to give first responders their own national network.

But the FCC concluded that not enough public money was available to build the system. Most of the proceeds of the auction will go a public subsidy fund for digital television converter boxes with the rest going to reduce the national debt.

Reluctantly, the FCC turned to a private-public scheme to get the first responder network built. The FCC is making a 10 MHz commercial spectrum block available next to public safety's dedicated 10 MHz of spectrum, and it will likely cost the high bidder several billion dollars.

The winner of the block will be required to work with public safety agencies, who control the spectrum dedicated to first responders, under a single, national license. Under the partnership, public safety agencies will lease spectrum from the partnership. Public safety will have priority access to the spectrum and the commercial spectrum holder will have secondary access to the public safety broadband spectrum.

The commercial operator of the public-private emergency network will be expected to build the network and cover 75 percent of the U.S. population within four years. Within 10 years, the network builder is required to cover 99.3 percent of the country.

Estimates for building the network reach as high $10 billion.

"As I have many times said, my first preference -- by a long country mile -- would have been a fully funded, federally funded public-safety-grade network reserved solely for first responders," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said.

Given the costs, though, Copps added, "The use of a public-safety private partnership, however, creates an opportunity to provide state-of-the-art technologies to our nation's first responders in a timely and affordable manner."

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said, ultimately, the public-private partnership was the only way to go.

"While I also would have supported a network exclusively for the use of public safety, the simple reality is that there currently is no way to fund such an enterprise," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said while introducing the auction rules.

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