- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Our nation’s first responders deserve 21st- century interoperable broadband communications. Broadband means first responders can send and receive video and images that can save lives. Interoperability means first responders from different agencies can communicate readily with one another to avoid the tragic loss of lives and time that we saw in the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Congress must decide between a fiscally irresponsible 20th-century model of dedicated, expensive public-safety networks that become rapidly obsolete or a 21st-century model of cost-effective public-private, shared infrastructure. Our country can afford neither billions of dollars to build and operate a new dedicated public-safety network nor the reallocation of commercial spectrum to dedicated public-safety use when a far more cost-effective path forward is available.

Public-safety lobbyists and their suppliers advocate that Congress:

  • Fund the build-out of a new dedicated wireless public-safety broadband network that will cost billions of dollars to build and operate and reallocate to public safety 10 MHz of commercial spectrum, depriving the U.S. Treasury of billions of dollars.
  • Create a new national public-safety governance corporation that would “own” and manage the new network.
  • Those in Congress concerned about fiscal responsibility must ask what the full cost would be and whether we have a better, more cost-effective solution.

Consider these facts:

  • Public safety already has far more than 10 times as much spectrum allocated peruser as cellular operators.
  • Any network that can support the needed video services must have at least 40,000 towers, as documented by Verizon and independently by the Federal Communications Commission National Broadband Plan. More spectrum does not change the signal strength necessary to support uplinked video services, a must for our first responders.
  • The cost of building and operating such a network over a 10-year period would be tens of billions of dollars. The National Broadband Plan and a public filing by Verizon both estimate the 10-year cost of such a network to be in the $50 billion range. This network would rapidly become obsolete unless billions of dollars annually were spent for ongoing modernization.
  • The entire active first-responder community is less than 3 million users, whereas the only two nationwide commercial wireless networks today support 100 million users each. A base line of 100 million users is what enables cost-effective operations per user and ongoing modernization.
  • 21st-century technology as used by the military enables high-quality virtual networks that share a common infrastructure while providing total security and command-and-control operations.
  • Reallocating the D Block spectrum band will deprive the Treasury of an estimated $3 billion.

The bottom line is that funding the building of a new dedicated broadband network, reallocating the D block, creating a governance entity, continuing to build separate narrow-band networks, together with ongoing operation and modernization, will cost taxpayers many tens of billions of dollars.

The right solution is a public-private partnership that shares the 4G (fourth generation) infrastructure being built today by the cellular industry as described by all major carriers and the FCC National Broadband Plan. This approach can be supplemented by using the new “small cell” technology that can turn public-safety vehicles into tiny mobile cell sites. First responders get better coverage and more capacity at emergencies.

The advantages of this approach include cost savings of tens of billions of dollars; access to the latest services and ongoing modernization;pre-emption of capacity when needed; interoperability, both for broadband and for narrow-band; and flexibility in state and local buying decisions to meet unique local needs.

Major carriers and the National Broadband Plan all have called for a public-private partnership that will share infrastructure and save the public many billions of dollars. According to public filings with the Southern Governors’ Association, this approach would save $30 billion. The National Broadband Plan showed comparable savings.

Given massive federal deficits and severely strained state and local budgets, Congress should choose the fiscally responsible path of public-private partnerships and say no to the lobbyists who want even more spectrum for public safety and an inefficient, costly-to-operate dedicated national wireless public-safety network that soon would become obsolete without continued massive infusions of capital.

Stagg Newman was chief technologist of the team that created the FCC National Broadband Plan in 2010 and chief technologist of the Federal Communications Commission in 1998-99.

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