FCC vision stops short of specific reallocation of D Block for public safety broadband use

The National Broadband Plan (NBP) suggests some bold steps to develop a nationwide public safety broadband network. These include new federal grant programs, roaming and priority access on commercial broadband networks to add capacity, a common technology standard, a new federal office within the FCC to address interoperability issues, and incentives for public-private partnerships. However, to the great disappointment of those who have asked Congress to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block for public safety broadband use, the NBP suggests that the D Block auction proceed as required under current law.

The NBP does not recommend any fundamental changes to the current 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band already allocated for public safety broadband. However, national public safety organizations and others have argued that additional spectrum (the adjacent D Block currently slated for auction) will also be needed to accommodate future public safety requirements, especially once first responders have the capability to stream live video to and from the field. The NBP suggests instead that public safety have priority access to commercial spectrum when dedicated public safety spectrum is unavailable, for example during a major emergency.

To make priority access and roaming work, the NBP recommends that the Commission mandate use of LTE as the broadband standard for both the D block and the adjacent public safety spectrum (LTE has already been selected by other 700 MHz commercial licensees such as Verizon and AT&T). This will allow devices to roam across the band and, pursuant to rules yet to be proposed, provide the mechanisms for priority access to be implemented. The big question for public safety, however, is whether commercial licensees would be willing to provide first responder agencies with seamless priority access to their networks, potentially disrupting (or at least slowing) their commercial customers’ communications. The NBP does propose that commercial providers be allowed to charge public safety for priority access, and some FCC staff have suggested that charges be limited to something like a “most favored customer” rate.

The federal grant programs are intended in part to provide funding for the deployment of the dedicated public safety spectrum, based on assumptions that existing public safety land mobile radio transmitter sites and, through partnership agreements, existing commercial cellular sites are used for the build-out.   Federal grants could also be used by public safety entities to “harden” shared commercial sites to meet public safety requirements (e.g., to add back-up power and reinforced towers). Part of the money for these grants could come from new commercial broadband fees proposed in the NBP, similar to the Universal Service Fund.

Tying all of this together will be the Emergency Response Interoperability Center (dubbed “ERIC”) that will reside with the FCC’s Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau, but will also have input from DHS and other federal agencies. There will be some type of advisory body to ERIC consisting of public safety representatives, though its composition and exact role are yet to be defined. Similarly, the NBP does not address how ERIC will interface with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, which holds the national license for dedicated public safety broadband spectrum.

Finally, the NBP contemplates that the FCC will soon address long-standing petitions for waivers from various state and local governments seeking authority for “early” deployments of 700 MHz public safety broadband systems. On March 17, the FCC issued a Public Notice seeking comment on a set of recommendations as to how to maintain interoperability among those systems and the yet-to-be deployed national broadband network.

As with other parts of the NBP, the public safety issues have already generated debate and will inevitably lead to contentious rulemaking proceedings and perhaps legislation in the months to come.

[Blogmeister note: This is one in a series of posts describing the range of regulatory and societal areas in which the National Broadband Plan could, and likely will, affect us all. Click here to find other posts in this series.]