FCC, public safety groups at odds over control of nationwide wireless network

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; A16

You'd think police and firefighters would be the first to back a federal plan to give them a nationwide wireless communications network.

But a dozen public safety groups have banded together against just such a proposal from the Federal Communications Commission, marking the latest twist in a nearly decade-long battle to make it easier for first responders to talk with one another during times of disaster.

This week, the groups launched a $500,000 advertising campaign to persuade Congress to scrap an FCC plan to auction airwaves to a commercial wireless carrier that would help build the network. Instead, the Public Safety Alliance wants to add those airwaves to spectrum its members already control, saying that they don't want to be restrained by a commercial partner.

Having more spectrum, the alliance says, would allow its members to create their own robust network through which police could send streaming video from a crime scene to medics and investigators.

"It's long overdue for Congress immediately to hold hearings and help keep America safe by providing this nationwide communications network, controlled and operated by public safety, not by commercial carriers," said Rob Davis, San Jose chief of police and president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

The lobbying battle follows years of botched efforts to create the national public safety communications network that Congress mandated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Since then, Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis have further exposed how emergency responders struggle with disparate networks and mismatched equipment.

Some of the nation's largest tech and telecommunications companies have sided with the public safety groups and provided financial support. For those businesses -- including Motorola, AT&T and Verizon Wireless -- there are fortunes to be made in supplying communications devices to medical and security crews and carrying their signals on their networks.

"We certainly rely on our corporate sponsors to fund our activities," said Courtney Hastings, a spokeswoman for the Public Safety Alliance. "They have come out and expressed their support of our positions. That means it would also be in the benefit of their business on public safety."

Who has the tab?

The FCC and some members of Congress, however, doubt that the public safety groups can afford to pay for the estimated $6.5 billion cost of building a mobile emergency broadband network. The FCC has already proposed that the government pick up some of the tab, but without a corporate partner the cost could rise by $9 billion, the agency has said.

"The clock is ticking, others are already deploying the latest in wireless technology," said Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC's public safety bureau. "What we're focused on is making sure public safety has a choice of partners, opportunities for consumer-priced devices and to make it all interoperable."

Written in the FCC's national broadband plan presented to Congress in March, the latest emergency network proposal seeks to introduce more competition into the wireless market. Analysts said that could mean excluding the nation's biggest carriers -- AT&T and Verizon -- from bidding in the public-safety spectrum auction.

The FCC's plan has the support of smaller wireless carriers such as T-Mobile, which want to catch up with larger competitors that are building out mobile broadband networks to launch late this year.

In opposing the FCC plan, AT&T and Verizon have said they think the public safety community is better positioned to build its own network for first responders.

But analysts say that by giving those airwaves to public safety groups, the major carriers could suppress smaller competitors. The large carriers could lease from public safety groups excess spectrum needed to meet high user demand in cities such as New York and San Francisco, the analysts say.

"A direct public safety allocation would keep another competitor out . . . and potentially open up commercial opportunities with public safety for Verizon and/or AT&T," said Jeffrey Silva, a policy director at Medley Global Advisors.

The FCC has also made it a goal to bring down the price of public safety devices from an average of $5,000 to prices more like those for high-end smartphones. The idea, officials have said, is for a police officer with a BlackBerry to be able to communicate with a medic with a Sprint Nextel HTC Evo.

That could cut into the dominance held by Motorola, which has an 80 percent share of the public safety device market, analysts said.

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