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Pedal to the Metal for Public Safety: Statewide Emergency Networks Can Work Together, Without Washington and FirstNet

Author: Pamela Valentine/ Exalt Communications

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-08-20
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Sometimes centralizing decision-making in the federal government isn’t the best way to manage an interconnected, nationwide system. Sometimes you need to rely on individual states to do what’s best. I’m not referring to public safety communications infrastructure; I’m thinking back to the National Maximum Speed Law enacted in 1974. This law made it illegal to exceed 55 mph on most roads as a means of gasoline conservation during a national energy crisis. Despite the long lines and many hours waiting to “gas up,” no one really observed the mandate, the law fell far short of promised gasoline savings, and even its tangential safety benefits were disputed. The authority to set speed limits was returned to individual states in 1995, and today, speeds vary anywhere from 60 to 80 mph depending on the state.

It’s clear that the states know what’s best for their drivers and their roadways, and I think the same holds true for states’ public safety communications networks. I’m afraid, though, that we’ll see the same struggle repeated in the wake of the Spectrum Act that established the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) as “an independent authority within the NTIA to specify, build, and operate a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) using broadband LTE infrastructure in the 700 MHz D-Block.”

So with public safety network decisions moving from city halls and state capitals to Washington, D.C., will the move to a centralized authority (FirstNet) accelerate the deployment of a truly nationwide public safety network built with efficient economies of scale? Or will the typical partisan bickering bog down the process of building and operating the NPSBN and turn a law with noble intentions into a painful national network puzzle?

The Spectrum Act was a monumental decision, and our legislators should be applauded for dedicating the D-Block to public safety. When it comes to building these networks, however, the country already knows it has work to do. And it’s doing it. While the Beltway gets up to speed on technical specifications and appointing the FirstNet board, traditional public safety and land-mobile radio networks (LMR) across the country are already proving that states can adapt to new interoperability standards on their own to make use of digital P25 technology. The impact at the local level is huge. Here’s a recent example from Exalt on a county-wide LMR system in Wisconsin.

The federal government’s role could be to ensure the interoperability of statewide networks, instead of mandating the construction of a separate, entirely new network that could end up with expensive redundancies. In my view, statewide public safety networks can be easily expanded and interconnected into a nationwide network. We don’t need FirstNet to accomplish this goal.

Statewide networks can be designed, built, and become operational faster than a nationwide effort. After all, the primary focus should be to help the local communities these networks are intended to support. That’s not to say the federal government shouldn’t have a role in encouraging states to work together. But FirstNet’s authority will burden new public safety networks already being built across the country. (As with the aforementioned speed limits, one size does not fit all.)

There are already many grassroots efforts to include public safety in statewide networks currently being deployed. One that quickly comes to mind is GovNET, an advanced multi-agency network that will serve public safety, education, healthcare, and other entities across Arizona with transmission speeds ranging from 100 Mbps to multi-gigabit per second. It’s not just legislation; it’s actually being built right now.

The faster speeds and expanded reach of projects like GovNET also have peripheral benefits we can’t yet measure. What will be the benefits of supporting new, high-bandwidth apps like in-car video for police departments? How much more informed will first-responders be when it’s easier to get broadband connections in rural regions of the state? New regulations from FirstNet could delay such advances for other projects that are nearly complete. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on several states that have had their funding frozen because of this change of course, with FirstNet leaving communities in limbo in Mississippi, Colorado, North Carolina, California, New Jersey, and New Mexico.

With an unprecedented swathe of D-Block spectrum now available, I think the federal government is missing an opportunity to help states interconnect public safety communications with regional public utilities agencies. Utilities already have valuable rights-of-way to run fiber or mount radios, and it’s by no means a stretch for them to build and manage communications infrastructure just as they would any other critical infrastructure.

These practical benefits are reason enough. But also consider that whenever there’s a regional emergency – gas leak, power outage, natural disaster – utility companies always seem to be the last ones to respond. It doesn’t do any good if the police respond to a gas leak while the utilities’ repair crews are somewhere across town.

The most recent example of this miscommunication is Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley fining National Grid $16 million for unacceptable response to damage from recent storms, leaving customers without power for over a week. Chief among the charges launched at National Grid is that the company compounded its poor response “with a lack of communication to municipalities and first-responders about restoration efforts, leaving many of them in the dark as they were making critical decisions about public safety and emergency treatment.”

Perhaps we would be better served if the federal government empowered states to bring utilities companies online to public safety networks, instead of slowing down the good work states have already done in this area. We certainly have the spectrum to do it now, and each state would have a better handle on the utilities providers in their regions.

Similarly, the federal government seems better suited to play a role in ensuring the interoperability and interconnection of existing statewide safety networks for the issues that span them, such as homeland security. Yes, we need to work together, but we don’t need FirstNet slowing progress by mandating that states build a separate – and possibly, redundant – public safety network to address broadband. If we learned anything from the pointless national speed limit law of the 1970s, it’s that states have a better handle on what works for their own people and infrastructures.

Federal mandates sometimes miss the point. LTE will be an important technology for enabling the next generation of public safety networks, but states have already shown they’re more than capable of adopting new technologies if they have the power and the funding. It’s not a stretch to imagine that existing efforts could be combined to work across the country. The states have been doing a good job on their own; they don’t need FirstNet slowing them down.

Pamela Valentine is vice president of outbound and channel marketing for Exalt Communications (www.exaltcommunications.com)

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