March 1, 2007

Sending Out an S.O.S.: Public Safety Communications Interoperability as a Collective Action Problem

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Brito, Jerry. "Sending Out an S.O.S.: Public Safety Communications Interoperability as a Collective Action Problem." Federal Communications Law Journal, 59 (March 2007): 457-92.

The Regulation

  • The FCC is considering whether to create a national 12 MHz license in the 700 MHz public safety spectrum allocation to be used for a centralized interoperable public safety broadband network. The proposed network would offer first responders service for a fee, and would lease excess capacity to commercial spectrum users.
  • Congress is also considering several measures to address the public safety communications interoperability problem, including allocating more funding and more spectrum for first responders.

Our Findings

  • Lack of interoperable radio communications among first responders is a serious issue as the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina have recently highlighted. It is also a perennial problem that has existed for nearly 30 years.
  • The interoperability problem is the result of what economist Mancur Olson called a collective action problem. The collective action problem in this case is the result of the national policy of public safety spectrum segregation and balkanization. That is, the federal spectrum gives each of the 50,000 public safety agencies in the country-that's every hometown fire and police department-their own radio license over which to build out a communications system. While the policy affords localities great flexibility to build a system that best suits their needs, more often than not it results in custom systems that aren't compatible with those of their neighbors.
  • Commercial provision of public safety communications can be employed to solve the collective action problem. It would also make for more efficient use of public safety's spectrum.
  • The experiences of three commercial providers of public safety communications-in Austria, the UK, and Iowa-are examined.


  • License several national competing commercial providers on public safety spectrum. Assign these licenses via competitive auction. Use the proceeds of the auctions to subsidize first responders' subscriptions to the new networks.
  • Require the new licensees to interconnect/interoperate.
  • Require the new licensees to give first responders priority over all other communications on the network.