February 22, 2012 was an historic day for the public safety community. The “D Block” was allocated for a dedicated public safety broadband network and $7 Billion dollars were provided to fund the build out of the network. Flash forward six months and the public safety community was introduced to the FirstNet board of directors who would oversee and direct the most critical decisions to stand up the public safety broadband network. The board quickly got to work organizing itself, laying out its priorities, and issuing a Notice of Inquiry to solicit feedback on a conceptual network design. Just before the responses to the NOI were due, the East Coast was hit with Hurricane/Super Storm Sandy, and all involved in the planning of the public safety broadband network were reminded of what makes public safety communications unique, challenging, and absolutely critical.
Creating the First Generation of the Public Safety Broadband Network
A recent article by public safety communications consultant Andy Seybold (Super Storm Sandy and Connectivity) does an excellent job parsing the differences between the commercial cell networks and a public safety grade network when it comes to connectivity, reliability, and resiliency. But one particular phrase in the article caught my attention; “Perhaps there is a better way to build out the first generation of the Public Safety Broadband Network”.
This phrase should remind us of what the public safety broadband network realistically will do when it is first “turned on”.
- There will not be mission critical voice applications running over the network.
- LMR systems will not become obsolete overnight.
- The public safety broadband network will enable the use of high-speed data and video applications in mission critical as well as non-mission critical environments.
While the future of public safety communications will eventually look drastically different from a capability stand point than it does now, public safety and those working on standing up the public safety broadband network should remain focused on building a system that realizes the potential of existing and near term data and video applications and which provides the ability to expand and support additional data, video, and eventually voice capabilities. The network will not be available to every city and county on Day 1, nor will it have all of the bells and whistles attached from the get-go. Setting realistic goals and expectations of the public safety broadband network will go a long way to sustaining the support and patience needed for its long-term success.
The Reality of Funding Two Public Safety Communications Systems
Hurricane/Super Storm Sandy also drove home the reality of sustaining LMR systems while the public safety broadband network is built and rolled out across the country. Additional data and video capabilities riding on a dedicated public safety broadband network will be welcomed with open arms by the public safety community. The bills at the end of the month that land on the desks of state and local officials who are paying for an LMR system as well as the public safety broadband network might be a bit of cold water to the face. Until mission critical voice is a proven technology on the public safety broadband network in planned and unplanned, high-traffic response events, LMR systems will continue to be the backbone of public safety communications.
- Where will the money come from to fund two public safety systems?
- How long will states and localities be able to dedicate the necessary funding?
- What happens when the money runs out?
The Need to Prioritize R&D Funding for Mission Critical Voice
In the face of states and localities potentially funding two public safety communications networks, research and development of applications on the LTE network that will eventually replace LMR systems should be a high priority of FirstNet and supporting legislation. Unfortunately, as Urgent Communications’ Donny Jackson made clear in his recent article (Federal R&D Money for Public-Safety LTE Should be Accelerated), the $100 m in R&D funding provided for by Congress will not be available by most estimates until 2015 at the earliest. The government could use this funding to accelerate the study of mission critical voice over the LTE network. The results of this R&D could have great impacts on the business plan of the FirstNet board, and even on the design and build-out of the network.
An additional $200 million is stipulated in the legislation as well for public safety research, but that is not available until after successful spectrum auctions raise the revenue to fund the network. Doing R&D on something as essential as mission critical voice after determining the network design and developing its business case is a bit of putting the cart before the horse.
Clearly the public safety community has their work cut out for them. State and local officials face numerous challenges maintaining current networks while preparing for what could be the future of public safety communications. All eyes will continue to be on FirstNet who meet this week for their second Board meeting to continue the long and difficult road towards providing public safety with the best wireless broadband network possible.