As we mark the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the communications problems plaguing first responders is as glaring now as it was then. A report card this year from the 9/11 Commission confirms it: First responders cannot communicate with each other in a disaster, and little progress has been made to correct the situation. A much-needed nationwide overhaul of public-safety communications infrastructure is currently stalled by a dearth of funds as well as political problems. An alternative is obviously needed, and the best bet is from the commercial sector.
It just so happens that the Federal Communications Commission is expected to begin looking at two radical proposals soon. According to Light Reading, the FCC is expected to begin studying a proposal from Cyren Call that asks Congress and the FCC for 30 megahertz of spectrum in the upper 700 MHz band to build a nationwide public-private emergency communications network. The other proposal is from M2Z Networks, which is asking for permission to use the 2155 MHz to 2175 MHz band to build a nationwide wireless IP network that will also help first responders.
I applaud both those efforts but fear these plans will never receive the government intervention needed to make them a reality. Cyren is asking the government to halt the 700 MHz auction and is heavily opposed by the industry and some influential members of Congress. The most doable proposal I've heard yet is from Verizon Wireless, which reportedly wants build a nationwide broadband public-safety network in the 700 MHz band but do so in a spectrum band already allocated to public safety when analog TV operators transition to digital TV. That way public safety won't touch the 60 megahertz of spectrum promised for commercial services and there won't be skirmishes over entities like M2Z getting free spectrum.
Verizon's plan envisions using 12 megahertz of the 24 megahertz that is already allocated for public safety to build a nationwide network. Verizon would then augment its existing infrastructure to give the first responder community the coverage it would require, making it, in essence, pay rent. And the spectrum would not be shared with Verizon Wireless' commercial customers. The public-safety community has already been asking the FCC to allow it to deploy high-speed data services in the 12 megahertz of the total 24 megahertz it gets, and the band and the leading technology contender there is CDMA 1xEV-DO. On the surface, it looks like a win-win situation and wouldn't require much budging from Congress, which is hungry for all of those auction revenues.
And what about Sprint's iDEN network that will eventually be defunct? Rumors have surfaced in the past that indicate the Department of Defense wants to buy Sprint Nextel's iDEN network as the first phase of a nationwide overhaul of its communications security framework. Sprint Nextel is becoming more entrenched in the public-safety arena, which might bode well for a transition of the network to first responders. It is well documented that many public-safety agencies are using Nextel's Direct Connect network as a secondary or parallel means of communication for logistics and non-mission-critical operations. In some cases, the carrier's push-to-talk network is the primary communications system for some small public-safety agencies and military posts.
Clearly something must happen, and soon. The wireless needs of public-safety have been ignored for so long that it's almost impossible to play catch-up, no matter how much money you throw at it. Federal grants are barely making a dent toward the ability for police, firefighters and other first responders to actually communicate with each other on the same system in the same jurisdiction. We witnessed that terrible fact on 9/11. Their lack of interoperability and broadband data capabilities that can transmit critical information is shameful given the fact that public-safety communications is literally a life or death issue.-Lynnette
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