FCC spectrum award marks beginning of national safety network

The Federal Communications Commission this week awarded a license within a piece of a valuable spectrum that will spur the development of a nationwide public safety broadband wireless network.

FCC awarded a 10-MHz slice within the 700-MHz band to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust. PSST officials said the license will support a broad range of applications such as streaming video, medical telemetry, computer dispatch and voice calls based on the Voice over Internet Protocol standards.

FCC will combine PSST's 10-MHz license with another 10-MHz of spectrum that will be licensed to the winner of anauction that starts on Jan. 24, 2008. The two licenses will be combined to create one shared nationwide wireless broadband network, which will provide commercial service for consumers and a nationwide network for public safety, with priority access for first responders during time of an emergency.

The new broadband network will herald a new era for public safety communications, supporting applications not readily available to first responders today, such as live, streaming video from the scene of a fire, said Alan Caldwell, senior adviser for government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He added that the broadband network also will allow first responders in a remote command post to access building drawings and diagrams and augment radio channels with VoIP phone calls over the network.

The network also could support telemetry channels, which monitor firefighters' vital signs and allow ambulance crews to transmit ultrasound images to clinicians at a remote hospital, where doctors can use the technology to determine whether a patient should be taken to a trauma center. "This could make mobile telemedicine a reality," said Kevin McGinnis, PSST vice chairman and a program adviser to the National Association of State Emergency Medical Services Officials, which is part of the consortium of public safety organizations that make up the PSST.

Harlin McKewen, PSST chairman and a former police chief in Ithaca, N.Y., said the national license will meet some of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, which urged that the spectrum in the 700-MHz band be set aside for first responders.

The nationwide license also will help address first responder interoperability problems highlighted by the inability of public safety agencies to communicate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, McGinnis said.

FCC structured the nationwide broadband public safety license so the cost of building the network will be borne by the commercial carrier, which will share the spectrum with first responders nationwide. Bastian Schoell, senior business development manager in the wireless group of Nortel, a network equipment vendor, estimated the commercial carrier partnered with PSST will spend between $2 billion and $5 billion to build out the nationwide network, with the ultimate costs determined by the data needs of public safety users in any given area.

Schoell said wireless network gear Nortel makes today can provide up to 3 megabits per second -- equivalent to home broadband DSL or high-speed cable Internet service in the Washington area -- to mobile users who are near a tower. Speeds drop to about 1 mbps in fringe coverage areas.

It could take a decade before the network is fully in place, with just less than 100 percent of the United States covered by the network, Caldwell said.

McKewen said how fast the network can be built out will depend on the winner of the next FCC auction, who will be partnered with PSST. If an established wireless carrier such as AT&T, Sprint or Verizon Wireless wins the auction, McKewen said that carrier could leverage its existing network infrastructure and quickly build out the public safety network. But he added that if a new entry - such as Google, which has been eyeing a bid in the 700-MHz auction - wins, then network deployment would take longer.

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