Private Funds Needed for Safety Network

The nation's emergency communication system is inadequate, and the government has come up with a solution -- a nationwide wireless broadband network that will operate on a highly valuable portion of the publicly owned airwaves.

While legislators and bureaucrats have embraced the idea, they haven't dedicated funds to pay for it. For that, the plan depends on private investors.

If the plan succeeds, it will bring the benefits of modern communications technology to the nation's police and firefighters, all without putting a dent in the U.S. Treasury.

If it fails, it will delay a meaningful solution to the nation's emergency communication woes for years to come.

The Federal Communications Commission approved the plan July 31. It calls for the creation of a network shared by public safety officials and commercial users. The cost -- as much $10 billion, according to one potential investor -- would be footed by private investors who, in the long run, hope to turn a profit.

"We kind of rolled the dice when we approved that," said Michael Copps, a Democratic member of the FCC. Copps would have preferred "by a long country mile" that the network were federally funded, but realizes options are limited.

"It's the only viable choice still remaining if we're going to get this built any time soon," he said in an interview.

In remarks approving the concept, Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said that he would "have supported a network exclusively for the use of public safety," but "the simple reality is that there is no way to fund such an enterprise."

The plan the commission approved was adapted from a proposal by Frontline Wireless LLC, a new company loaded with former senior government officials and backed by a who's who of technology industry luminaries.

Frontline wants to combine 10 megahertz of spectrum dedicated to public safety with another 10 megahertz of commercial spectrum, set for auction early next year, to create a shared national network.

The public safety portion would be managed by a nonprofit board consisting of members of public safety organizations. The private portion would be put up for bid. The winning bidder and the public safety board are required to reach a network sharing agreement.

Public safety gets first priority for traffic on the network. Any room that remains will be used for commercial services.

The minimum bid on the spectrum block is $1.33 billion, according to the rules guiding the auction, which were released Friday. The rules are vague about what happens if the reserve price isn't met.

While the FCC adopted the major elements of Frontline's plan, it did not agree on one key issue. Frontline wanted the winner of the commercial license to be required to offer "wholesale" access to the network, leasing network space to potential competitors. Such a requirement would have discouraged the dominant wireless carriers from bidding.

Frontline CEO Haynes Griffin said the company will ask the FCC to reconsider its decision. The company contends the existing auction rules present obstacles to newcomers who want to participate.

Despite the disappointing decision on wholesaling, the company will still bid, although it may ask others to pitch in.

"Frontline will bid in the auction," Griffin said. "But we think a consortium is likely to be the preferred path to success."

The company certainly has plenty of deep-pocketed friends who might help out. Among them are former Netscape CEO James Barksdale, venture capitalist John Doerr and Ram Shriram, a founding board member of Google Inc.

Google is a major proponent of the wholesale concept.

Frontline's management includes former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, who is the company's vice chairman, and Janice Obuchowski, a former assistant secretary of commerce in charge of telecommunications policy, who is chairwoman.

Regardless of who submits the winning bid, construction of the network will be a major undertaking. According to the auction rules, it must cover 75 percent of the population within four years and 99.3 percent within 10 years.

Unlike a regular wireless network, it must be "hardened," meaning it must be able to withstand rough weather conditions. It will require thousands of new cell towers plus a satellite backup system in case the primary network goes down.

Frontline estimates the cost at around $10 billion, not including the cost of the spectrum.

To date, the public safety network proposal has been framed from the perspective of Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the federal government.

The real question for public safety professionals is, what specifically will this do for us?

It seems counterintuitive, but the most advanced services -- like streaming video and data -- will come on line first. Voice communications will take much longer as emergency workers in thousands of local jurisdictions migrate from trusted, existing voice systems to new, interoperable voice networks on a common network.

Washington, D.C., has been operating a wireless broadband pilot program for three years. The technology allowed U.S. Park Police to monitor the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall using live streaming video shot from a hovering helicopter and fed to a mobile command center, according to Robert LeGrande, deputy chief technology officer for the District of Columbia.

He said the technology, when fully deployed, will allow firefighters to access building plans from a central database before charging into a raging fire and give police instant access to drivers' information and bulletins on wanted fugitives.

"I think the broadband technology is the new platform that public safety needs in order to provide next-generation communications where voice, video and data can come together on single devices," he said.

The auction, by law, must take place by Jan. 28, 2008.

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