September 20, 2013, 12:00 PM — It’s been more than a dozen years since the 9/11 tragedies. Unfortunately, we still don’t have a bona fide nationwide public safety network, which has been discussed and planned ever since. Yet the Federal Communications Commission has announced that it will hold its first wireless spectrum auction in five years as early as January 2014 and that some of that spectrum will be used for the cohesive public safety net we’ve been hoping for.
By way of background: The forthcoming broadband public safety wireless data network was a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. Last year, Congress created FirstNet, which is to be the U.S.’s first nationwide interoperable broadband network to help first responders intercommunicate across local and state borders. The idea is that police, fire, EMTs and others will be able to better coordinate their public safety efforts so they can hopefully save more lives, solve more crimes and keep communities safer.
Talk of such a network and even nascent attempts to build one in various creative ways have been kicking around for years. Historically, most public safety networks have been local in nature – using dissimilar spectrum bands and thus not being interoperable. So in cases of nationwide emergencies – think 9/11, Katrina, Sandy – communicating across the wireless islands has been indirect and has consumed valuable time that could have been spent saving lives.
Use of commercial cellular networks has been impractical because the airwaves instantly grow chock full during a big emergency, and busy signals quickly become typical. First responders really need their own channel, but spectrum is scarce enough and at such a premium that commercial interests to feed the public's insatiable demand for bandwidth have often gotten in the way of dedicating nationwide wireless bandwidth to public safety.
So it's not surprising there's a current hitch and it has to do with money: Members of the FCC are split over the plan to auction the public safety swath of wireless spectrum by early next year. Some want to auction both the so-called “H” block of spectrum, currently unused, ASAP, to get FirstNet rolling. Others want to couple the auction with that of the “AWS3” spectrum, currently used by federal agencies and not available for auction yet, to bring in more bidders and more money. How this argument plays out will affect when we see FirstNet completed.
FirstNet will be built to public-safety grade standards using Long-Term Evolution (LTE) wireless technology and is intended to deliver greater coverage, capacity, connectivity, cybersecurity and resiliency than the current multiplicity of diverse public safety wireless systems.