FCC plan calls for 'minimal' public safety fee for all broadband users

Funds would go toward a new $16B nationwide wireless emergency response network

The FCC's National Broadband Plan, released today, calls for a new "minimal" fee on all U.S. broadband users to help pay for a new $16 billion nationwide emergency response wireless network.

Public safety officials have pleaded for such an interoperable network to aid their response to disasters and potential attacks since firefighters and police could not communicate effectively during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the response following Hurricane Katrina.

"If we don't get the funding, this network won't be possible and following 9/11 and Katrina, we need the funding," said Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville, Va., fire department and chairman of the executive committee of Safecom, a public safety communications organization that works with the Department of Homeland Security.

"The key thing is to achieve a public interoperable network and this is a must. Failure is not an option," Werner said.

In its 19-page section on public safety, the plan calls for creating the national wireless network for first responders and says that the cost of between $12 billion and $16 billion over 10 years could be paid with state and local contributions.

But the plan also argues for a "nominal" fee on all U.S. broadband users to "ensure that this country's emergency responders have access to critical communications capabilities when and where they need them."

The plan urges Congress to authorize the FCC to impose or require the fee or another funding means. The plan adds: "It is essential that the United States establish a long-term, sustainable and adequate funding mechanism to help pay for the operation, maintenance and upgrade of the public safety broadband network."

"America's safety depends on it ... Recognizing that Americans will obtain substantial benefits from the creation of this network, imposing a minimal public safety fee on all U.S. broadband users would be a fair, sustainable and reasonable funding mechanism," the section reads.

Werner said he wanted to study the plan more thoroughly before reacting to the funding proposal and related measures. In February, he said public safety officials were "disappointed" with the bare bones of the broadband plan presented at that time, because it called for a reserved portion of spectrum, known as the D block, to be auctioned off to private entities and shared with public safety groups who have wanted total control of the D block.

But today, Werner seemed to soften his earlier comment and said that since the FCC now wants the D block auctioned off, "we need to focus on the outcome of how we can achieve the network."

Another element in the plan calls on the FCC to consider designating LTE technology as the standard that would be used for the public safety network in the 700 MHz band.

"[Having LTE as] a consistent air interface creates a greater likelihood of interoperability between the public safety and commercial D block networks," the plan says. "[LTE] will facilitate roaming between networks to improve coverage and access for public safety and commercial customers...and encourage a larger number of potential users."

However, some have criticized using LTE, including Michael Jude, an analyst at Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan. The biggest drawback to LTE is that it won't be widespread for years and requires cell towers to be fairly close compared to some other wireless standards "which probably wouldn't work well for many first responder situations," he said.

Jude said that with so many federal dollars under scrutiny for other programs, it makes more sense for public safety groups to rely upon multiple frequency-capable handsets for interoperability in emergencies.Such handsets equipped with Communication Electronic Operations Instructions, a kind of flow chart, "would solve most interoperability problem at very low to no cost at the local level," Jude said.

The broadband plan also calls for several federal agencies to oversee the public safety network, including a new Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC). ERIC would oversee public safety wireless network standards and assist another new, unnamed, agency in giving grants to public safety groups.

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.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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