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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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