Public-safety LTE plans disrupted by 700 MHz D-Block legislation

Though first responders have finally gotten the nationwide 700 MHz spectrum allocation they were longing for, the new law allocating the frequencies has thrown some existing plans for public-safety LTE networks into disarray.

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that was passed in February reallocated the 700 MHz D-Block spectrum to public safety and included $7 billion in federal funding from forthcoming spectrum auctions to help pay for a nationwide LTE network for first responders. However, some jurisdictions are already using federal grants through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to fund 700 MHz public-safety LTE networks and others were preparing to seek grants from the BTOP program before the new law was passed. Seven recipients of waivers to build public-safety networks at 700 MHz have received BTOP grants.

"It seems that, generally, the BTOP recipients are moving forward with their projects," said Bill Schrier, Seattle's CTO, in an interview with Urgent Communications. Schrier--who is also the chairman of the Operator Advisory Committee, which is made up of jurisdictions that won waivers for public-safety networks in the 700 MHz band--told Urgent Communications, "I think the rest of the waiver recipients are continuing their planning work but are still trying to decide whether to move forward."

The article said Harris County, Texas, which actually did not receive a BTOP grant, will launch the first public-safety LTE network on May 31. BTOP grant recipient Charlotte, N.C., will follow with its public-safety LTE network launch on June 30, well before the Democratic National Convention comes to town in September.

The 700 MHz D-Block public-safety network will be overseen by a new entity, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is slated for establishment by August under the auspices of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Public-safety LTE networks launched before FirstNet is set up will continue to operate under waiver jurisdictions until the networks' spectrum licenses can be transferred from the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) to FirstNet. But the payroll-tax extension legislation does not prescribe a specific process for transferring the PSST licenses to FirstNet.

UrgentCommunications noted that first responders would like to see the 10 MHz of PSST frequencies ultimately combined with the 10 MHz of D-Block frequencies, ensuring public-safety entities will have access to the full 20 MHz of contiguous broadband spectrum.

Public safety could potentially gain access to commercial LTE networks in 700 MHz spectrum as well, if the FCC decides to insist upon 700 MHz interoperability across all bands. FirstNet is already empowered to strike roaming deals with commercial wireless carriers to slash costs and take advantage of operators' infrastructure and vendor relationships, but a lack of interoperability across 700 MHz bands could keep such deals from happening. The FCC is due to discuss the interoperability issue at its March 21 open meeting.

Canada's government also recently allocated 10MHz of 700 MHz of spectrum for public-safety use as part of its plans to auction of digital-dividend spectrum next year.

For more:
- see this UrgentCommunications article
- see this RadioResource article

Related articles:
Wind threatens to boycott Canada 700 MHz auction
Seybold's Take: Public safety's 700 MHz LTE network an opportunity for vendors
T-Mobile: All 700 MHz LTE networks should interoperate