FCC calls for spending up to $16B on nationwide network for public safety

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the commission's national broadband plan will call on Congress to allocate $12 billion to $16 billion over 10 years to help build an interoperable, pubic-safety broadband network--a bold effort to move forward on an issue that has stymied the FCC for years. He also said the plan would call for a re-auction of the D Block of the 700 MHz spectrum band, and said public-safety agencies should have access to all of the 700 MHz band, not just the D Block.

A day after he outlined the commission's proposals for mobile broadband, Genachowski turned his attention to public safety--an issue that has long bedeviled policy makers working to smooth communications among the nation's police, fire fighters and associated emergency workers. 

"The private sector simply is not going to build a nationwide, state-of-the-art, interoperable broadband network for public safety on its own dime," he said in a speech at the FCC. "Local municipalities and states can certainly contribute some amount to sustaining any network that is built. But the bottom line is that if we want to deliver on what our first responders need to protect our communities and loved ones, public money will need to be put toward tackling this national priority."

The FCC said it wants Congress to create a $6 billion grant program to support the buildout of the network over a 10-year period. The remainder--$6 to $10 billion over a 10-year period--would be for the operational costs and to upgrade the network as technology advances.

Genachowski said the plan envisions public safety having access to the entire 700 MHz band through roaming and priority access arrangements. He said public-safety agencies could have access to as much as 80 MHz of spectrum under those kinds of deals.

He said the FCC does not want to limit the public-safety community's options, noting public safety would be able to work with any commercial operator or systems integrator under the plan.

The proposal has potentially far-reaching consequences not only for wireless carriers, but infrastructure vendors that want to supply equipment to the public-safety community as it builds out the network. Although Genachowski did not provide details, the FCC's public-safety plan could lay the groundwork for the creation of a publicly funded LTE network for public safety, built by the likes of Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent. (Indeed, those two vendors have been tapped by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility for their own LTE networks.)

And as for operators, both Verizon and AT&T's forthcoming LTE networks will be built out in the 700 MHz band, and the carriers would presumably provide roaming on those networks to any public safety effort. However, details of the FCC's plans remain unclear, as do the shifting positions of the various players. Both Verizon and AT&T have argued that the D Block be given directly to public safety on a regional basis. By contrast, T-Mobile USA, which does not own 700 MHz spectrum, has pushed for a plan to auction the D Block solely for commercial use, and then use the proceeds to build a network for public safety.

For more:
- see the full text of Genachowski's speech

Related Articles:
Debate over D Block's fate heats up
What will become of the D-Block?
Public safety groups endorse LTE as broadband solution
Verizon urges scrapping D-Block auction process

Article updated Feb. 25 to incorporate clarifications issued by the FCC.