Canadians wait for U.S. on public safety network

Canadian public safety agencies hoping the U.S. budget fight doesn't kill a plan to create a national wireless network for first responders. If the Americans don't set aside spectrum in the 700 MHz block for the network, then Canadian plans to create a mirror service will likely die.

"A lot is riding on the U.S. and what they'll do," says Supt. Pascal Rodier of the British Columbia Ambulance Service, co-chair of the committee representing Canadian chiefs of police, fire departments and ambulance services that have banded together to lobby the federal government on a dedicated cellular network.

"I don't think anyone's going to commit (here) until we know that the Americans are going to do. We were hoping by now they would have made their decision."

The idea of Canadian cellular network has been urged by the federal Public Safety department in addition to emergency agencies. Ottawa is still mulling over its plans for a 700 MHz auction. But telecom carriers here have asked the government wait until the U.S. has decided if it will set aside 700 MHz spectrum in the D-block, as has been urged there for years. Supporters here may not have long to wait. Last week as part of a new jobs plan, President Barack Obama proposed setting aside the D-block for the public safety network, creating an independent agency to run it and giving it US$50 million towards its eventual US$10 billion construction.

The proposal will be dealt with by a special Congressional committee scheduled to report to Congress by Nov. 23 on deficit reduction. However, there are members of Congress that oppose giving away valuable spectrum instead of auctioning it. It is also opposed by some public safety agencies there that wouldn't be included in the network.

It is conceivable that the proposal -- which in a similar form was bought to Congress over a year ago and got nowhere -- will get voted down in a country torn between cutting the deficit and spending to ease the recession.

The public saftey network would allow agencies for the first time to share voice, video and data from crime and emergency scenes to speed their ability to save lives and property. Not only can it be important for a police or fireman to transmit live video from a cellphone or tablet at an emergency to a command centre, Rodier points out, it would be helpful to pull together feeds from video cameras on streets, in buses or in schools.

Canadian emergency workers would like spectrum to mirror that south of the border so public saftey agencies could communicate with each other.

While Canadian emergency workers would like to see progress, in one sense there is no rush. Two of the country's biggest carriers told the government earlier this year there are no dedicated handsets or network gear yet for the D-block. So they urged Ottawa to wait until Washington has clarified its plans before deciding to reserve spectrum for a public safety network.

Also, the plans for the network here aren't completely formed. Public Safety Canada calls for a "system of systems" linking local, provincial and federal agencies. The business plan and exactly how the network would work would depend on negotiations with those agencies and, probably, existing carriers.

The plan of Rodier's committee plan is similarly open, although it recognizes that it will have to leverage to some degree the infrastructure of existing carriers. That went over like a lead balloon, Rodier reports.

Only one carrier accepted an invitation for an explanatory meeting and "not much was really said."

It does suggest that when the public safety spectrum isn't needed, it could be used by carriers serving the public. However, the committee, and the Public Safety department, insists public service agencies must have control. "We want to be in the boardroom making the decision as to who can have it and who can use it," Rodier said.

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