A Privatized National Public Safety Network?

From Lasar’s Letter, December 26, 2006
By Matthew Lasar

It will operate almost 250 video and broadband channels, and be allowed to access hundreds more under certain conditions. It will allow thousands public safety agencies to exchange data about weather emergencies and potential terrorist attacks. It will enable police agencies to exchange mug shots, fingerprints, and share real-time video monitoring of emergency or potentially criminal situations.

And it will be run by a commercial entity that charges on a fee-for-service basis, even permitted to market spectrum to other companies “through leases or in the form of public/private partnerships.”

On December 20th the Federal Communications Commission issued a Ninth Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on how to use the 700 MHz band for public safety purposes.

“We believe that the time may have come for a significant departure from the typical public safety allocation model the Commission has used in the past,” the Notice argues.

In fact, what the NPRM proposes could be described as radical—a highly centralized, privately run emergency communications system that the document claims will function as a non-profit, yet could be allowed to lease out spectrum using a model similar to that recently proposed by the Microsoft Corporation in a series of FCC filings.

Here it is, the future of public safety communications as envisioned by Kevin Martin’s FCC:

The search for seamlessness

The Ninth Notice rejects what it calls the “typical public safety allocation model the Commission has used in the past.”

In a nutshell, up until now the FCC let local law enforcement and safety agencies apply for communications channels—licenses to transmit voice and data. Many of these allocation decisions were made by regional public safety planning committees.

But no more, the FCC proposes: “While this system has had significant benefits for public safety users, in terms of permitting them to deploy voice and narrowband facilities suitable for their needs, the system also has resulted in uneven build-out across the country in different bands, balkanization of spectrum between large numbers of incompatible systems, and interoperability difficulties if not inabilities.”

Obviously the shadow of Hurricane Katrina and September 11th hangs over this discussion. The 9/11 Commission’s Final Report disclosed in painful detail in the difficulties New York City’s public safety communications system faced during the crisis, among them police and fire radio channels that could not be accessed by other agencies.

Even worse, the FDNY’s point-to-point radios broadcast at such a weak signal that only personnel in the immediate area could access them, crippling the department’s ability to coordinate a city-wide rescue effort.

And so, “in developing our proposal,” the FCC writes, “we are guided by the following objectives for public safety communications in the twenty-first century.” These include:

* the use of the 700 MHz spectrum, made available by the transition from analog to digital television * a system of “nationwide interoperability” that will allow emergency personnel to communicate “seamlessly” * a system of “adequate funding” that better meets the needs of local services dependent on municipal and county allocations * robustness—communications networks that will run even when a disaster like Katrina knocks out local terrestrial systems, by relying on satellite technology and other national resources.

To achieve these goals, the FCC’s Notice argues for what will be seen as a massive centralization and commercialization of the nation’s emergency communications system, its leasing to “a single, national public safety broadband licensee,” who would sell access to the network “on a fee-for-service basis.”

How it would work

As already noted, this national entity would charge local and regional emergency agencies for access to the national broadband system on the basis of volume of use.

In addition, the entity could charge for what the FCC calls “unconditionally preemptible commercial use of the spectrum.” That is, the company could lease out channels for non-public safety use, as long as their customers understand that they might have to put up with signal interference and the immediate cancellation of service in case of emergencies.

But the Notice also stipulates that the FCC would “leave significant discretion to the national licensee to carry out its responsibilities,” including the work of establishing leasing arrangements with commercial service providers.

The ideal candidate for this job, the FCC says, will have to have three qualifications on its resume: experience with public safety management, an “ability to directly represent all public safety interests,” and not-for-profit status.

“We also propose that no commercial interest may be held in the national license or licensee,” the FCC argues, “and that no commercial interest may participate in the management of the national licensee.”

But critics will doubtless hone in on the ambiguity of creating a “not-for-profit” entity whose relationship with public safety agencies is constructed around fee-for-service arrangements, and which will share this resource with commercial firms seeking to use those resources for non-public safety commercial purposes.

Just a few pages later, the proposal suggests commercial relationships that bear strong resemblance to arrangements advocated by Microsoft. The software giant has been pushing the FCC to let the firm use public safety channels to exploit so-called “white space”—temporarily unused spectrum accessible by unlicensed home and office broadband devices via “cognitive” satellite monitoring.

This technology, the FCC contends, “may be able to dynamically and efficient exploit these unused spectrum fragments and aggregate them into a valuable ‘virtual’ broadband spectrum resource for the benefit of public safety uses.”

But Microsoft’s most recent filing on this matter, dated October 4th, doesn’t mention public safety at all, except to urge the FCC to “not prematurely decide that television broadcast channels 14-20 cannot be used by unlicensed devices anywhere in the country.” The FCC currently licenses those channels to thirteen cities for public safety uses.

As the Ninth Notice proceeding progresses, pointed questions will doubtless focus on how this new public safety entity will maintain its mission in the face of pressure from commercial interests to lease out the systems’ components parts for non-public safety purposes, especially if the FCC leaves “significant discretion” to the entity when interests like Microsoft come knocking.

Indeed, the Ninth Notice appears to take public communications safety in a direction remarkably similar to the route down which FCC Chair Martin wants to take video service: out of the hands of localities and regions, and into the hands of big, centralized, commercial entities.

Who are the players?

The FCC’s proceeding over how to reorganize public safety communications has gone through eight comment cycles that date back to 1995. Just over a year ago, on December 23rd, 2005, Kevin Martin issued a report to Congress promising that, in light of the analog to digital TV transition, the Commission would “expeditiously examine and analyze whether certain channels within the current allocation of twenty-four megahertz of public safety spectrum in the 700 MHz band could be modified to accommodate broadband communications.”

It is safe to say that the Ninth Notice goes way beyond that assignment, proposing a massive restructuring of the nation’s public safety communications system. The comment trail is filled with outlines for this reorganization coming from telecom equipment developers like Lucent and Ericsson, from the Satellite Industry Association, and from Intel, Cisco, and Qualcomm.

But Martin’s Congressional report also disclosed opposition to key provisions of the Ninth Notice from one of the FCC’s own Regional Planning Committees.

“FCC Regional Planning Committee 8 (RPC 8) asserts that an interoperable nationwide broadband network requires a considerable amount of spectrum dedicated solely to public safety, and ‘shared by all Government levels’,” the report acknowledged. “RPC 8 further stresses that the Commission should not permit non-public safety operations in this spectrum, ‘even on a secondary or shared basis’.”

In addition, the Martin report acknowledged testimony from public emergency service providers who “expressed reluctance to rely on commercial services for mission critical communications because of lack of network control, security and reliability concerns, particularly during a crisis or disaster.”

They also charged that many commercial providers are less reliable in covering rural areas.

It is likely, then, that the Ninth Notice will accelerate a debate over the proposed privatization of the nation’s emergency communications system, a struggle that, involving complex debates over spectrum, technology, and regional power, will receive far less public attention than the Commission’s handling of media ownership, video, and indecency rules.

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