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Finally! Public Safety Broadband Network Signed into Law, but GAO Releases Cautionary Report

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Plans for deploying a nationwide interoperable wireless network for public safety use has taken a big step forward. On Feb. 22, President Obama signed the payroll tax cut extension bill that includes provisions for this long-awaited network and sets aside the 700 MHz D Block for public safety use, according to this article in WirelessWeek. This bill also provides $7 billion in federal funding for the construction and deployment of a nationwide, interoperable LTE network (that’s down from $10.7 billion from the original commitment).

This network is a long time coming. The concept of a dedicated network for public safety was originally a direct response to the inability of first responders, police officers, firefighters and others to effectively communicate during the attacks of 9/11. 

In addition to creating a dedicated network, the President’s Wireless Innovation Initiative also includes nearly doubling of the wireless spectrum available for mobile broadband, providing at least 98% of Americans with access to 4G high-speed wireless and catalyzing innovation through a Wireless Innovation Fund (WIN). On Feb. 21, Vice President Biden released a new report from the Council of Economic Advisers that described the potential for wireless broadband to play a transformative role in public safety (as well as the economy as a whole):

“I’ve been working on changing the way we allocate spectrum for a long time, because a smarter system is good for our economy, good for innovation, and vital to keeping our cops, firefighters and EMTs safe,” said Vice President Biden.

While passing this bill is a HUGE step forward, there will be major challenges to getting this network up and running. The Government Accountability Office released a report on Feb. 22 outlining some of these challenges. For one, while a new public safety broadband network will provide more interoperability, the network won’t have the same voice capabilities that current land mobile radio (LMR) systems have. That means the existing LMR systems will have to be used concurrently even when the broadband network is in place, reported Information Week. The report also cites possible financial shortcomings, including concerns about adequate funding to properly build and maintain this network. Here’s a snippet from the report:

Multiple federal entities are involved with planning a public safety broadband network and while such a network would likely enhance interoperability and increase data transfer rates, it would not support mission critical voice capabilities for years to come, perhaps even 10 years or more. A broadband network could enable emergency responders to access video and data applications that improve incident response. Yet because the technology standard for the proposed broadband network does not support mission critical voice capabilities, first responders will continue to rely on their current LMR systems for the foreseeable future. Thus, a broadband network would supplement, rather than replace, current public safety communication systems.

There are serious technical concerns as well about this network. For example, the network will also lack support for “direct or talk around” capabilities, which is allows units to communicate when they are out of range of a wireless network. Also, group talk, or the ability to communicate on a one-to-many basis is also a critical first-response feature that won’t likely be made immediately available on the network, again making LMR systems a requirement for public safety responders.

How this network and the associated technology will be developed and deployed is a subject of great interest for technology providers and public safety officials alike. In mid-March, there’s the Microsoft Worldwide Public Safety Symposium in Redmond, Wa. that will likely address many of these concerns about the public safety network and technology used by public safety agencies. While this is obviously a Microsoft-sponsored event, many of the speakers are high-ranking public safety officials who will hopefully shed some light on what technology is needed in the public safety space and how this network comes into play. Be sure to check back for updates from this event.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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