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FCC Mulls Broadband Network for Public Safety

WASHINGTON -- So much of the government's recent attention to broadband networks has focused on the networks used by consumers, but in the backdrop of that heavily-lobbied debate are policymakers' concerns over the use of broadband to improve public safety.

But with a thicket of state, local and tribal jurisdictions with widely varying needs and budgets, the goal of a nationwide, interoperable broadband-enabled communications network has remained elusive.

The Federal Communications Commission, which is developing a national broadband plan to present to Congress in February, today convened federal officials, doctors, police officers and first responders from around the country at Georgetown University to consider that issue.

"Our nation's public safety is perhaps the most important issue for this commission," FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in an opening keynote address. "It is critical that we provide the best leadership possible to ensure that communications are operational during our most serious emergencies that affect our communities and our families."

But where to start?

The FCC's efforts to lay the groundwork for a national public safety network ran aground last year, when a portion of wireless spectrum set aside for a shared public-private network failed to trigger the minimum bid at auction.

The commission is still considering how to proceed with the so-called D Block of 700 MHz spectrum. An FCC source told InternetNews.com that the commission's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau would likely submit a spate of recommendations to the chairman's office before the end of the year.

At the federal level, the FCC isn't alone in addressing the public-safety conundrum. The Department of Homeland Security is in the process of developing its own technology roadmap to meet the needs of first responders, as well as address other critical threats such as cybersecurity and disease outbreaks.

"DHS looks at the development of a national broadband plan as an opportunity to protect the American people from the many threats we face," said Rand Beers, the undersecretary for the department's National Protection and Programs Directorate.

But Beers also noted that new technologies -- whenever they make it into the field -- will have to operate with first responders' existing equipment, because the transition to a 4G broadband network will not happen overnight.

"We need to remember that legacy LAN mobile radio services will be with us for a long time," he said. "This is why our mission is to promote compatibility and interoperability."

The public-safety personnel who turned out for today's event voiced a wide range of applications for which mobile broadband technologies could be used. Medical personnel in rescue vehicles with equipment tied into the network could administer more thorough remote care, which in rural areas where the nearest medical facility could be two hours away could mean the difference between life and death.

Similarly, in poor or tribal areas, police who can file their reports remotely can spend more time on the beat. Networks that could deliver remote access to pooled databases, high-resolution images and streaming video also show up on the wish lists of public safety workers.

"Broadband connectivity ads tremendous potential for expanding reach," said Howard Federoff, executive vice president of Georgetown University Medical Center. "Borrowing a term from the military, it's a force multiplier."

While there is general agreement on the need for a universal broadband network dedicated to public safety, particularly since the communications failures that impeded the responses to the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, the precise form that network should take remains highly unclear. Under the rules for the ill-fated D Block auction, a private firm would have purchased the spectrum with the requirement of dedicated a portion of the network for public safety.

Many of the panelists at today's event suggested that the solution lies in some form of hybrid public-private partnership, with some form of subsidy to cover the cost of the network.

"In our agency, we're leveraging commercial [broadband] services to the maximum extent," said Eddie Reyes, deputy chief of the Alexandria, Va., police department. "The problem is it's expensive."

Reyes said his department spends about $260,000 annually to provide broadband link-ups to its 300 officers. But that's in a dense and affluent suburb of Washington, D.C.

Remote rural and tribal areas often don't have providers offering robust broadband networks with universal coverage in their regions, and even if they did, cash-strapped police and fire departments couldn't afford to pay the freight.

These are areas "where there is no market to drive investment in communications infrastructure," Beers said.

And, unlike consumer-facing mobile broadband, where outages and gaps in the coverage area might be an annoyance, a wireless network supporting firefighters battling a forest fire in a national park would have no tolerance for downtime.

In September, the FCC issued a report outlining a broad roadmap for public safety, emphasizing the importance of coordinating with state and local governments.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski hasn't committed to a plan to tackle the public safety issue, though it is sure to be included in the national broadband strategy.