FCC crowns LTE as technology of choice for public safety broadband

With the release of a combination Third Report and Order and Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“R&O/NPRM”) the FCC has taken a big step toward ensuring that public safety agencies relying on future wireless broadband networks will be able to communicate across jurisdictional boundaries.   Current public safety radio networks often suffer from a lack of “interoperability” which can endanger the lives of first responders and the public. The new broadband networks will be deployed in the 700 MHz band and are expected to provide police, fire, emergency medical, and other personnel with secure and reliable access to a wide range of data and video capabilities.

The Commission took the first step by endorsing a specific broadband technology, Long Term Evolution (LTE), for public safety broadband networks. While the FCC generally avoids picking technologies, it has done so when necessary to promote interoperability for public safety. Absent a standard, there is a risk that one jurisdiction will deploy technology A, and a nearby jurisdiction will deploy technology B, preventing communications between public safety personnel from those jurisdictions when responding to emergencies.

In this case, picking a standard was an easy call, as the public safety community and the vast majority of vendors and wireless carriers are solidly in support of LTE. The selection of LTE will also allow public safety to piggyback on the widespread commercial deployment of LTE in adjacent frequency bands. That should reduce equipment costs and open up the potential for network sharing arrangements.

Having selected LTE, the Commission also committed (in the notice of proposed rulemaking portion of its ordre) to examine a host of broadband interoperability issues, including:

  • the architectural vision of the network;
  • the effectiveness of open standards;
  • interconnectivity between networks;
  • network robustness and resiliency;
  • security and encryption;
  • coverage and coverage reliability requirements;
  • roaming and priority access between public safety broadband networks; and
  • interference coordination and protection.

For those who would like more detail about the FCC’s R&O/NPRM but who aren’t inclined to wade through all 58 pages of the item and its attachments, the FCC has posted a 13-minute video summarizing it all.

The R&O/NPRM is only the most recent step in the FCC’s on-going effort to foster the goal of a fully interoperable network for emergency responders. Last April, for example, it established an Emergency Response and Interoperability Center (ERIC) within its Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau to focus on broadband interoperability and related issues. It also recently appointed an advisory committee to ERIC, consisting of public safety and industry representatives.

The big open question, of course, is where in the radio spectrum the public safety broadband network will operate. Currently, there is 12 MHz of spectrum allocated for public safety broadband in the 700 MHz band, and some entities have received authority to initiate local deployment plans. However, it’s not clear that 12 MHz is sufficient for an effective broadband network.   National public safety groups and other parties have been lobbying Congress to reallocate another 12 MHz in the adjacent 700 MHz “D Block” for public safety broadband. The Obama Administration recently indicated its support for such a reallocation. Passage of the necessary legislation, however, remains in doubt as some parties continue to push for a D Block auction.