An Endowment for Public Safety Networking

Cop Cars Crashed Into Each Other
The Public Safety network that’s been under discussion since 9/11 exposed the lack of interoperability between New York City’s police and fire networks remains a hotter topic of debate in Washington than of implementation in Omaha, but a détente of sorts has been reached between the two sides. The latest spectrum bill from the House Republicans reverses the old consensus in favor of auctioning the D Block spectrum in order to fund nation-wide mobile broadband services for public safety in favor of simply assigning the D Block to public safety for the same purpose.

Depending on the next steps, this could either be a good thing or a bad thing. The decision to assign rather than auction is based on faulty assumptions about the best way to meet public safety needs, but sometimes good things can happen for bad reasons. The public safety lobby insists that they have unique requirements that standards-based commercial networks can’t meet – especially for reliability and security – but also insists that it will embrace the LTE standard for the construction of a new network. We’ve examined the “unique requirements” previously, and have found them to be a combination of features that have more to do with mobile applications, handsets, and nice features that users of commercial networks would like to have, such as enhanced reliability when towers are hard to reach (presumably because they’ve lost power, been shifted by earthquakes, or flooded.)

So we have to wonder whether the public safety lobby is quite serious in its commitment to refrain from deploying the one-off solutions that have made their networks incapable of interoperability today in favor of a truly standards-based system. Our position is that the best way to ensure public safety interoperability is to take police and fire out of the infrastructure business and have them sub-contract this part of their system to commercial providers. They can write contracts with commercial network infrastructure providers that allow them to run all of their applications at the required level of reliability, security, and priority without building a single tower, just as commercial Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) such as Tracfone do today and Virgin Mobile did in the past (before they were acquired by Sprint.)  Running an MVNO still takes some work, but much less than it takes to operate each tower in a nationwide network that requires constant attention to ensure smooth operation.

Running an MVNO also ensures that the operator has access to additional resources – spectrum and backhaul – to meet extraordinary demands of first responders in times of crisis. If public safety contracts for average capacity of, say, 20 Mbps in New York, and the provider has a physical network with, say, 100 Mbps average capacity, it’s not hard to see that there’s an opportunity to add “peak capacity up to 50 Mbps in case of emergency” to the contract. As infrastructure providers have roaming agreements with each other, peak capacity could even be much higher. Running an MVNO would also allow the spectrum that public safety doesn’t use in typical day-to-day operation to be monetized, essentially sold back to the infrastructure provider for other uses until it’s needed. In some cases, this sell-back may generate enough income for public safety to pay for most of their own networking costs. 

Sharing spectrum between public safety and commercial networks frees the taxpayers of the albatross of under-utilized spectrum, network equipment, and network operators and allows public safety to focus on their core mission, keeping the peace, fighting fires, and dealing with emergencies. It also removes the temptation to pursue excessively expensive special-purpose equipment with enormous long-term cost of ownership.

Despite the grant of spectrum to public safety, we may still get to MVNO nirvana if the public safety network is administered correctly. The plan calls for the creation of a special corporation to administer the public safety network, and we can hope that the proper incentives will help the administrators to realize the wisdom of relying on standards-based commercial networks to provide the bulk of their services.

The spectrum assigned to public safety could function the way land grants do for public universities, as a permanent endowment. With the spectrum crunch that’s already hit several parts of the U. S. – and is forecasted to become more severe until action is taken – this spectrum is more valuable to commercial operators than it is to the public sector.  So we simply have to make it clear that the public safety corporation is free to sub-license its raw spectrum to commercial operators and to buy back data services on running networks and keep any “profits” for reinvestment in their networks or other public safety uses. 

An economic system like this supplies water to the Republic of Singapore: Malaysia supplies Singapore with untreated water, Singapore returns treated water to Malaysia and keeps enough to meet its own needs. The two countries are not particularly friendly, but the system works because it provides mutual benefit.

This outcome is likely as long as nothing in the public safety networking bill precludes it and the public safety networking corporation is properly scrutinized. This is the best way to achieve interoperability, low cost, and high reliability.

Image Credit: United Artists (Live and Let Die)

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About the author

Richard Bennett is an ITIF Senior Research Fellow specializing in broadband networking and Internet policy. He has a 30 year background in network engineering and standards. He was vice-chair of the IEEE 802.3 task group that devised the original Ethernet over Twisted Pair standard, and has contributed to Wi-Fi standards for fifteen years. He was active in OSI, the instigator of RFC 1001, and founder, along with Bob Metcalfe, of the Open Token Foundation, the first network industry alliance to operate an interoperability lab. He has worked for leading applied research labs, where portions of his work were underwritten by DARPA. Richard is also the inventor of four networking patents and a member of the BITAG Technical Working Group.
  • Sean Pool