Emergency network still needed, FCC public safety chief says

'Do this ... or stop complaining about needing interoperability,' official says

Despite public pressure to keep federal spending in check, the Federal Communications Commission's top public safety official renewed his call for creation of a $16 billion national data network for public safety workers to be partly financed by a monthly fee on all broadband users.

"I'd say to the average citizen who wonders why this is needed, 'Do you want your mom's police department to be able to interoperate with the sheriff's department and the National Guard in a crisis?'" said James Barnett Jr., chief of the FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau. "Most will say yes. For a few cents a month, we will make sure we have that ability."

Barnett suggested the public safety fee could be as low as 50 cents a month on every broadband user, although the FCC's National Broadband Plan announced in March calls for a "minimal" fee without listing an amount.

Barnett, a straight-talking retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, said in an interview that the FCC recognizes that the nation is in "a tough budgetary environment," and that building an interoperable network for use by police, fire and military officials would involve some "heavy lifting."

Even so, Barnett said now is the time to implement the FCC proposal in the National Broadband Plan, which calls for building an interoperable public safety network in the so-called D block of the 700 MHz radio spectrum network that would be shared with commercial interests.

"There's never going to be a better funding environment for building this," Barnett said. "It's just going to get more expensive over time. Either we do this or we should stop complaining about needing interoperability."

Despite complaints from taxpayers that a public safety fee is another unneeded tax in bad economic times and that the need for an interoperable network is unproved, Barnett said the network is widely endorsed by public safety workers, including some who couldn't communicate over radios after the Sept. 11 attacks or during Hurricane Katrina.

The leaders of the former 9/11 Commission endorsed the FCC's proposal in March and even issued a statement about it, Barnett noted. "The 9/11 Commission on which we served concluded that the absence of interoperable communications capabilities among public safety organizations at the local, state and federal levels was a problem of the highest order," said the March 18 statement signed by former commission Chairman Thomas Kean and former Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton. "The FCC's plan offers a realistic framework to move forward."

FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said today that recent field trips by FCC staff to Tampa Bay, Fla., and Harrisburg, Pa., revealed that emergency response pilots flying to and from accident scenes with injured people must figure out ways to quickly communicate over seven or eight different radio frequencies with other emergency workers. Over the past several decades, thousands of local, state and federal fire, police and rescue authorities nationwide have created their own independent radio systems that don't use common frequencies, with some operating in the 400, 500, 700 or 800 MHz spectrum bands, he said.

The FCC's plan would be far cheaper than the alternatives, Barnett said, because the commercial sector would share the D block, giving priority to emergency data needs in a crisis. The savings would come from lower-cost commercial data devices used by rescue teams, which could cost $400 to $500 apiece instead of up to $7,000 for typical public safety radios. In addition, as an LTE (Long term evolution) data network is built in the 700 MHz spectrum by the commercial sector, public safety groups could install equipment on the same towers at lower costs.

The plan also calls for public safety groups to be able to use data devices to roam the airwaves outside of the dedicated public safety band in extreme emergencies, with public safety paying commercial carriers a fair rate for the service.

"There's broad recognition that we have one shot to solve the 9/11 problem, because if we miss the commercial network build-out [shared with public safety] then the public safety network price doubles," Barnett said. "We want everybody to catch up with that recognition."

Barnett said there is bipartisan support in Congress for the proposal, adding, "Who doesn't want to solve the interoperability problem?"

He added that his discussions with wireless carriers indicate that the carriers "don't see the public safety fee as a major problem because they support a public safety broadband network."

The wireless industry association CTIA and several carriers have refused to comment on the proposed fee, although the CTIA has long supported a lobbying effort attacking the number of state, local and federal fees and taxes on wireless services.

The interoperable network would at first provide data services to emergency workers, with the addition of voice services in five to seven years as the voice technology for LTE evolves, Barnett said. Data service can be used by rescue teams in many ways, not only to send text messages and e-mail, but also to send video of crime scenes and fires, for example, or schematic diagrams of burned or damaged buildings or roadways, Barnett explained.

"If a fire department is called to a scene, they could download a planning commission diagram of a building to a laptop and they would absolutely know where the hazardous material is," he said.

During the early years of a public safety interoperable data network, older voice technologies would continue to be used alongside the data network, he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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