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April 1, 2012

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More than 10 years after 9/11, the foundation has been laid for a nationwide wireless broadband network for easier first responder communication

By Kyle W. Morrison, senior associate editor

Everyone from teens to grandparents can use a cell phone or other wireless communication device to send and receive text messages, pictures or videos, thanks to a network of wireless providers. But emergency workers hoping to similarly communicate via a wireless broadband network find themselves behind the times – with potentially serious consequences.

One glaring example occurred during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“People died due to bad communication on Sept. 11,” said Richard Mirgon, immediate past president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, headquartered in Daytona Beach, FL. “The inability for first responders to communicate effectively caused people to lose their life. There’s no reason that should have to happen that way.”

Although the majority of communication issues associated with 9/11 were due to voice communication problems, many first responders and communication experts contend that a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network for data would greatly assist first responder efforts.

More than 10 years after the nation’s worst terrorist attacks, a new law lays the foundation for that network.

Legislation

Included as a provision in legislation extending a payroll tax cut, a bill signed into law on Feb. 22 provides the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with a license to use an additional 10 megahertz in the 700 megahertz spectrum commonly referred to as “D Block.”

Ten megahertz of broadband spectrum had previously been allocated exclusively for public safety, but the additional 10 megahertz in D Block is needed for evolving technology and to ensure the network does not become overtaxed in an emergency, according to Harlin McEwen, retired police chief in Ithaca, NY, and current chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Communications and Technology Committee.

“We don’t have nationwide inter­operability in our narrowband voice systems,” McEwen said. “We need to have nationwide interoperability in data.”

The Federal Communications Com­mission controls the licenses for the broadband spectrum, and the agency previously was required under law to auction off D Block. An auction attempt in 2008 failed to secure a minimum bid, mostly due to a provision requiring the purchaser to share the spectrum with public safety entities, which would have had priority of the spectrum in an emergency.

Another auction, which never occurred due to the new law, would have removed the language requiring the private-public partnership, something stakeholders feared would have led to an inability to create an adequate communications network.

The bill also creates the First Responder Network Authority, which will operate under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and be responsible for establishing a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network.

NTIA also will receive $7 billion in funding to build the data network, which proponents suggest offers a wide variety of practical uses for both first responders and the public. For instance, firefighters could pull up schematics for a burning building on personal electronic devices to better navigate inside. Or, risk managers and safety professionals could deliver information about hazardous chemicals onsite to first responders.

“A lot of people in the health and safety industry know where the hazards are within structures, and they need to have an ability that the information they push into a computerized network will go to first responders,” Mirgon said.

A dedicated safety network also would help members of the public by allowing them to text 911 in various situations. Paramedics would be able to send video or pictures of an injured victim to emergency departments to give doctors a better idea of what to expect.

The future

As McEwen noted, a nationwide interoperable voice system does not exist, and the new network will not necessarily lead to its creation – at least not at first. But building up the data network eventually could open the door for a voice network, according to Mirgon.

Such an event may take a long time, however. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office suggested that several challenges exist to implementing a public safety broadband network, including ensuring interoperability, creating a governance structure, building a reliable network, designing a secure network and determining funding sources.
 
Some of these issues have been resolved – funding will be provided by auctioning off vacated television spectrum, and the First Responder Network Authority will establish the network – but creating a national, interoperable network supporting “mission-critical” voice capabilities could take 10 years or longer, according to the GAO report. As a result, first responders will continue to rely on land mobile radio systems to communicate during an emergency.

“A public safety broadband network would likely supplement, rather than replace, current LMR systems for the foreseeable future,” the report stated.

This can be problematic, GAO noted, as land mobile radio systems have their own shortcomings: They are operated by state and local jurisdictions, they can have compatibility issues, and they lack interoperability that would allow one jurisdiction to talk with another during a large-scale disaster response.

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