The Case Against More Wireless Spectrum for First Responders

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Last month’s failure of the congressional “Supercommittee” to reach agreement was bad news not just for deficit reduction, but for mobile broadband as well. The committee had been considering auctioning broadcast TV airwaves, a plan that would have not only raised revenue for the federal government, but also provided much-needed spectrum to meet the surging demand for wireless data from smartphones and other devices.

Now Congress is moving on a stand-alone bill to auction the airwaves, and one sticking point has been whether to give away 10 MHz of spectrum to public safety agencies. It may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s not.

The Interoperability Problem

On 9/11, officers from the New York City police and fire departments responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center. Shortly after the South Tower collapsed, an officer in a police helicopter hovering over the scene radioed that the North Tower looked like it would soon fall as well and called for an evacuation.

Police officers inside the building and on the ground heard those warnings and proceeded to evacuate. Most got out. However, because their radios were not compatible with those of the police, firefighters inside the tower could not hear the message. One hundred and twenty-one
firefighters died inside the North Tower when it collapsed 21 minutes after the first warning was issued over police radio.

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First responders often cannot communicate with each other because the federal government assigns to each of the 50,000 public safety agencies in the country–that’s every hometown fire and police department–their own radio license and piece of the spectrum with which to build out a communications system. This affords localities great flexibility to build a system that best suits their needs. More often than not, however, the custom systems are incompatible with each other.

Searching for a Solution

The spectrum bill now before Congress would, again, give public safety more spectrum, but this time the spectrum is to be used to build a national, interoperable network. That’s easier said than done. How such a network would be governed and, perhaps more importantly, how it would be funded, is still up in the air. It begs the question, is more spectrum what public safety really needs?

Patrol cars are as indispensable to police as radio communications. Yet when we provision cars to police, we don’t give them steel, glass and rubber and expect them to build their own. So why do we do that with radio communications? Why do we give them the raw material–spectrum–and ask them to build their own networks?

When police purchase cars, they do it much like the rest of us. They buy them from a manufacturer–like Ford or GM–that has the expertise and economies of scale to supply a good product at a reasonable price. Sure, they can get some customizations for police work, but that’s easy after the car is built. So why don’t they buy communications like the rest of us?

When you buy communications, you don’t acquire radio spectrum and build your own network that will likely be incompatible with that of all your friends and family. Instead you go to a carrier–like Verizon or AT&T–and purchase capacity on their network. And guess what? Those different networks are national and interoperable.

So the alternative to giving more spectrum to public safety is to let first responders do what they do best–police and save lives–and leave communications to network providers. In some parts of Europe, entrepreneurial businesses build and maintain the public safety network and sell interoperable communications capacity to the agencies there. It’s even been tried successfully in some U.S. jurisdictions. Such a system has the potential to be more interoperable, inexpensive and efficient than one designed by a federal committee.

Transitioning to a system of privately provisioned public safety networks would take time and effort, and there are many details left to be worked out. But at least it’s outside-the-box thinking that may beat what we’re doing now, which is more of the same and hoping for the best.

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