The Case for Dedicated Public-Safety Broadband Spectrum
April 12, 2011
By Jeppe Jepsen
Mission-critical broadband could prove vital for public safety. But to be reliable, broadband networks must be secure and robust, and that calls for dedicated spectrum.
A significant number of major disaster reports since the 1950s have highlighted the weakness of communications within public-safety organizations responding to emergencies. The recent series of natural disasters in the Asia/Pacific region — an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, in February and the earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan in March — only serves to bring into focus the crucial importance of a robust communications network for the various emergency services, especially in times of crisis.
Although too early for conclusive results, anecdotal evidence from these two disasters reinforces the conclusions drawn from analyses of earlier disasters — public wireless networks can’t be expected to adequately service the deluge of radio traffic, which accompanies a major disaster. These communications problems make the case for governments to provide dedicated public-safety spectrum, not just for mission-critical voice, but for mission-critical broadband.
The advantages for public-safety organizations to have access to services such as real-time, high-quality video streaming coordinated with voice traffic are many. The question is how can it be delivered? The options are a dedicated public-safety service (PSS) network similar to current TETRA networks; a shared service run on public networks; or a mix of the two.
The problem with the last two options is that public-safety communications have a variety of unique and stringent requirements in terms of integrity, security, coverage, capacity, reliability, availability, redundancy and reconfiguring ability. Public networks are driven by different requirements. They are not optimized to meet the operational requirements of mission-critical data applications, including secure data transfer, nationwide coverage, guaranteed availability and control.
A shared network scenario would require pre-empting capacity, whereby the networks would guarantee to clear spectrum for emergency purposes on demand. A number of risks are associated with this in terms of making it failsafe, and it is debatable how willing mobile network operators will be to provide such a service if this is not part of the license agreements from the initial signing of the contract.
That leaves dedicated PSS networks. Voice capacity and spectrum for public-safety broadband was initially estimated in 1994. The dedicated narrowband and wideband 380 – 470 MHz network allocation of only two 5-megahertz-wide blocks for PSS in many countries is not sufficient to meet future needs. Public safety is limited in capacity and the volume of data, and congestion on the TETRA network may necessitate the use of insecure communications for data communications, which would be a problem in a major emergency. Compounding this, the integrated broadband services now emerging require more bandwidth for use by PSS. Consequently, that means additional dedicated spectrum must be reserved.
In Asia/Pacific, different countries are at different levels of development in their exploration of the need for dedicated PSS networks. Asian authorities would do well to learn from the example of the United States. President Barack Obama in February outlined an initiative to provide US$7.5 billion in federal funding to help pay for a nationwide public-safety broadband network for first responders in the 700 MHz D block — welcome progress to be sure, but an initiative first recommended by the 9/11 Commission in 2004 — seven years prior. Congress has yet to approve any funding specific to a nationwide public-safety broadband network.
Harmonized spectrum planning takes many years to bring to fruition, but there is a pressing need to ensure that dedicated spectrum is allocated now. Spectrum is a precious commodity, but similar to all commodities, it is a limited resource. As policymakers investigate the best possible approach, they will find that ultimately, there is no easy answer as to where dedicated public-safety broadband spectrum can be found. In the end, it is a political question: What should the balance be among HDTV channels, military capability and the effectiveness of the emergency services?
Spectrum can, and indeed must, be found. However, there is a lack of an effective voice from the public-safety user lobby. There is a real risk that the lack of a clear voice could be mistaken for a lack of need. The opportunity needs to be seized now. If this window is missed there is a risk that it will be 15 years or more before effective public safety and security broadband provision is available. The case for dedicated PSS spectrum is compelling.
Jeppe Jepsen has been the director of international business relations at Motorola Brussels since September 1995. Jepsen joined Motorola in 1979, and has been instrumental in shaping the development of public-safety communications technology strategy. He has also held several positions in the TETRA Association since its founding in 1995 and is a director in the TETRA Association and a member of the board. In addition, Jepsen is the elected chairman of Public Safety Communication Europe’s (PSCE) Spectrum group, a permanent autonomous organization aiming at improving provision of public-safety communications and information management systems.