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LTE-based public safety network could finally become reality

Ten years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States government may finally be making progress on allocating spectrum for an LTE-based public safety broadband network.

The Public Safety Alliance, a nationwide alliance of public safety associations, says that Congress could allocate 10MHz of spectrum on the 700MHz band to public safety agencies by the end of the year. The PSA's optimism has been sparked in particular by the renewed focus of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., on pushing legislation that allocates a 10MHz block of 700MHz spectrum to first responders. Under Rockefeller's plan, the government would pay for construction of a new public-safety network on the spectrum with revenues generated from other spectrum actions.

BACKGROUND: FCC sets LTE as standard for public safety network

"The hope is that we'll see a markup of Sen. Rockefeller's bill before Memorial Day," says Sean Kirkendall, the spokesman for the PSA. "From there we want to see swift action to get this done."

Kirkendall says that public service agencies need to have a next-generation mobile broadband network up and running soon so they can start testing out mission-critical voice applications. Currently public safety agencies already have access to 10MHz of the 700MHz band, and the proposed Rockefeller bill would give them another 10MHz of contiguous spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission has estimated that building out a next-generation broadband network on this spectrum will cost anywhere between $6 billion and $12 billion.

"The aggregation of this spectrum is so important because they're right next to each other on the 700MHz band," says Kirkendall. "It will give us a public safety broadband network with in-building propagation unlike anything we have today."

The Federal Communications Commission failed three years ago in its attempts to auction off the 10MHz of public safety spectrum -- referred to as the "D Block" -- as part of its auction of spectrum on the 700MHz band. Even though the total spectrum bids for the 700MHz band nearly doubled congressional estimates of $10.2 billion, no bidder met the reserve price for the D Block, which the FCC had earmarked for the construction of a high-speed public safety network that would bring America's emergency response system up to date with next-generation technology. When the auction ended, the top bid for the D Block was less than half its $1.3 billion reserve price.

In the weeks leading up to the auction, analysts at the Yankee Group predicted that the "horrendous" ownership costs of the block, whereby prospective licensees would be responsible for building out a national public safety network with 75% population coverage within four years of getting the license, would deter companies from making significant bids on the spectrum. Frontline Wireless, a start-up carrier that had planned to bid aggressively for the public safety block, announced that it was shutting down its business just weeks before the 700MHz auction began. With Frontline out of the picture, the D Block received only one significant license bid, and the fate of the spectrum has been in limbo ever since.

The FCC said earlier this year that any next-generation public safety mobile broadband network would have to use LTE as its data standard "to ensure nationwide interoperability for public safety communications."

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