Public safety needs a competitive wireless industry

As a fire chief and first responder, it’s critical that I be able to communicate.  And I recognize that for me and for all, mobile phones are no longer a luxury, but an important part of everyday life, especially necessary in times of crisis.  We all need robust communications, and we need them all the more during emergencies.

Ever since 9/11, there has been renewed public debate focused on how we can provide our nation’s police and firefighters with an advanced communications network that enables full inter-operability across multiple jurisdictions/departments/agencies and functionality even in the most difficult and trying of circumstances.

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After more than 12 years, we’re making progress.  Plans are in place to develop a nationwide, high-speed network dedicated to public safety.  And the board of FirstNet is providing the leadership and collaboration with emergency responders across the country to bring the network to life – with the objective of protecting the homeland, saving more lives, preventing law breaking, solving crimes and keeping our communities safer. 

As you can imagine, this massive undertaking will not come cheaply.  However, FirstNet will be funded from the proceeds of several spectrum auctions conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  Spectrum provides the highways that enable wireless communications, and for first responders, the proceeds from upcoming spectrum auctions will endow the creation of a network dedicated to improved broadband communications.

In 2015, the largest auction of spectrum in years will occur – the FCC Broadcast Incentive Auction.  All first responders should be watching this very closely as a portion of the proceeds from this auction will go a long way toward helping to fund FirstNet, though important, it’s not the only source.  This spectrum, in the 600 MHz band, is extremely valuable because it can both travel long distances and allow wireless signals to penetrate building interiors to provide broadband connections where they can be hardest to reach.  This is why they call it beachfront spectrum, and that’s why  it is absolutely critical that the spectrum is auctioned in a way that will ensure a competitive marketplace.

The FCC auction process is complicated, but these auctions will have ramifications for our future.  Importantly, public safety wants the most competitive auction possible, with a wide variety of bidders to drive up revenues.  My hope is the FCC will create an auction structure that provides all bidders a reasonable chance to win some of this low-band spectrum.  That outcome will be good for auction revenues, and good for a competitive wireless broadband landscape in the future.   

And there’s an important aspect of this auction no one is talking about – that a healthy competitive wireless industry in itself is good for public safety.  As a first responder, I want to know that all carriers in the market have robust networks.  So that during emergency situations, we’ll all be able to communicate better, no matter whose network we’re making a call on or relying on for transmitting critical data. 

Ultimately, we in public safety want the auctions to be successful.  Success for us means that enough money is made to fund the public safety network AND a wireless industry is still intact that enables public safety departments across the country to have carrier choice and competitive pricing.

We also know what auction failure looks like.  A failed auction would discourage participation from a wide variety of carriers and create a wireless industry that offers limited network and hardware partners for FirstNet.  Costs would be driven up and quality would be driven down.

After more than 12 years of waiting and with lives on the line, we want the FCC to know that failure is not an option.

Werner is the fire chief for the City of Charlottesville Fire Department. He also serves on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) SAFECOM Executive Committee, the DHS Homeland Security Information Network Advisory Committee, the DHS Virtual Social Media Working Group, the FirstNet Public Safety Advisory Committee, the International Association of Fire Chiefs Technology Council, the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS and the National Information Sharing Consortium.

 

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