Want Better Public Safety Networking in America? Commercialize It

One of the hottest issues in mobile broadband policy today is the nature of the national public safety network that’s been under discussion since the 9/11 Commission examined the shortcomings in the systems currently used by first responders.  The Commission’s report highlighted the incompatibility of emergency response networks used by the Fire Department of New York, the Port Authority, and the New York Police Departments, recommending improved information sharing. Subsequently, Congress and the FCC have struggled with the problem of creating a unified, nationwide emergency response network that would replace the existing incompatible systems and enable first responders to act in concert with one another. Their conclusion is that the public safety network should employ the emerging LTE standard that’s in the process of rolling out on commercial mobile broadband networks operated by MetroPCS, Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint in the U. S. and by other commercial carriers around the world.

Joshua Topolsky’s column in today’s Washington Post (“Want better wireless service in America? Socialize it”) describes an alternate reality in which cell phone callers can’t call their friends on different networks, can’t surf the Web, and can’t share information with each other. If Topolsky’s vision describes any real systems in the U. S., they could only be the incompatible public safety networks that we’re struggling to bring up to date. Ironically, the incompatible and non-interoperable public safety systems have been built under the bureaucratic scenario Topolsky idealizes, and their salvation lies in their transformation to the widely accepted, commercial LTE standard. Government envies the commercial networks precisely for their compatibility, performance, economy, and resiliency, but it realizes that it’s going to take an Act of Congress to make first responders change their ways.

Topolsky, a record producer and former gadget reviewer for a popular blog, is apparently oblivious to these developments. He also seems to be unaware that broadband providers have roaming agreements with each other that enable them to share network infrastructure, not the mention the fact that fair dealing in roaming agreements is actually mandated by a (probably redundant ) FCC regulation. It makes perfect sense for broadband providers to compete with each other on the basis of coverage, capacity, and price, and the results of this policy speak for themselves. The U. S. has some of the cheapest per-minute cell phone calls in the world, and has the leadership position with LTE.

Topolsky imagines that broadband service in Britain costs a mere $6/month, thanks to the “unbundling” policy that opens British Telecom’s DSL service on a wholesale basis to qualified Internet Service Providers. There may very well be a promotion running in some small area by a startup provider hoping to drum up new business, but the standard rates for the two largest broadband providers in the U. K. are £25.60 ($40.47) for BT’s DSL and £37 ($58.50) for Virgin Media’s cable Internet. As in the U. S., the two largest British broadband providers own their own networks and price their services on a long-term, sustainable basis.

Our mobile broadband ecosystem is the envy of the world in most important respects: Not only do our networks perform better and cost less to use than those in most other countries, but the smartphones built by American innovators Apple, Google, and Motorola set the global standard in their part of the mobile marketplace. The ability of both network service providers and handset builders to do what they do best enables application developers around the world to serve American consumers through millions of applications that should be known to the better gadget reviewers.

We don’t need to imagine what might happen to America’s wireless networks if we socialized them because we’ve already run the experiment in public safety networking. The data we’ve collected from the two wireless ecosystems, public and private, running side-by-side for the past 30 years demonstrates that we’d do better to go in precisely the opposite direction: Let’s convert our government operated mobile networks to Mobile Virtual Networks running on the commercial infrastructure that’s brought us the benefits of innovation and interoperability.

To understand how that would work, read our recent report, Spectrum Policy for Innovation, that we discussed with a star-studded panel at ITIF headquarters Tuesday.

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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.