Public safety scores nationwide 700 MHz LTE network, but vendors won't cash in anytime soon

Embedded in the legislation that President Obama just signed to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits are provisions related to the creation of a nationwide, interoperable public-safety broadband network. The network, a treasured goal of policy makers and public-safety officials since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is finally going to be built. However, it seems clear that vendors and wireless carriers eager to lend a hand in its construction--and turn a profit in the process--will have to wait years before the network actually gets off the ground.

The legislation allocates the 10 MHz D Block of the 700 MHz band directly to public safety. It also sets aside $7 billion to build the network, using LTE technology, partly through proceeds from an incentive auction of broadcast TV spectrum.

The network represents a major opportunity for network equipment manufacturers, device vendors and other suppliers. "From the standpoint of our industry, it's a good thing. It's another potential customer," said Mike Fitch, the president of PCIA.

But there are a range of complex problems that must be addressed before this will become a reality.

First, the law calls for the creation, within 180 days, of a board called the First Responder Network Authority, which will hold the D Block license. That board, which will include several cabinet officials, former public-safety officials and experts on LTE and networks, must come up with a buildout plan in consultation with the states. The board will also have to work with the FCC to devise technical standards for the network.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration can borrow up to $2 billion to get the ball rolling, but there are numerous issues to sort through. One is what happens to the local and regional public-safety networks that have been operating under waivers from the FCC. "Those waivers require them to adapt to whatever national structure should come out in the future," said Dick Mirgon, the former president of public safety organization APCO. "How does that actually occur? How do you transition in? I don't have the answer for it but it definitely needs to be addressed."

Other issues the board must deal with include how to partner with commercial carriers and use existing commercial infrastructure to reduce the buildout costs of the network; how the network will be maintained and upgraded as LTE technologies evolve; how roaming agreements with commercial carriers will be structured; how public-safety workers will get priority access to the network in cases of emergencies; and how devices for the network will be certified.

The public-safety community should be proud that things have gotten this far, but given all of the drama leading up to this point, it seems clear things won't move quickly. "There's a lot of hard work left to do and there's just a multitude of moving parts and stakeholders to deal with," said Jeffrey Silva, an analyst at Medley Global Advisors.

Mirgon estimated it will take 12 to 18 months before the first contracts for the network are awarded, and three to four years before public-safety workers are actually using devices on the network.

I hope that the public-safety network can be built in the most expeditious manner possible while also ensuring that it's developed in a way that serves the public interest--rather than any commercial motives. More than 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the public deserves that and deserves this network. Given the complexity of the issues involved, vendors looking to take advantage of a new nationwide network better take a seat and be prepared to wait a while. --Phil