February 26, 2007

Public Safety Communications Interoperability

Key materials
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The Regulation

 The FCC seeks comment on its new plan to create national license for a public safety broadband network. It plans to assign to a nonprofit licensee 12 of the 24 MHz of public safety spectrum in the 700 MHz band that will become available after the digital television transition. The licensee will be able to offer service to public safety for a fee. It will also be able to sell excess capacity on its network to private users on an unconditional interruptible basis.

Our Findings

  • The FCC should be commended for acknowledging that the current system of assigning spectrum licenses to individual jurisdictions helps create an environment of balkanized and incompatible radio systems. National licenses that offer subscription services to public safety agencies help solve the collective action problem that causes a lack of interoperability in first responder communications.
  • The FCC should be commended for recognizing the benefits of allowing private entities to share in public safety spectrum. A shared network vastly increases the economies of scale available to the network. 
  • The FCC's is considering a "centralized national approach" by creating only one national license. This would create a monopoly service provider for first responder communications.
  • The FCC's plan limits the license to nonprofit entities, thus artificially limiting the pool of qualified potential licensees and possibly undermining the beneficial incentives that would be created by the commercial provision of pubic safety communications services. 

By the Numbers

  • A 2004 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that about a quarter of cities polled did not have a communications link between their police and fire departments. More than 80 percent reported that they did not have the capability to communicate with FEMA, the FBI, and other federal agencies. Forty-nine percent of cities said they are not interoperable with the state police, and percent reported an accident within the preceding year incommunications made response difficult.
  • A collective action problem exists because there are about 50,000 public safety agencies independently building their own communications networks.
  • Carnegie Mellon engineering professor Jon Peha has calculated that the number of antennas deployed by public safety entities nationwide correlates less with population or geographic area than with the number of political jurisdictions. This means that more antennas are put up and more spectrum is used than is necessary to cover an area simply because local agencies and jurisdictions do not coordinate to share antennas and spectrum. Peha also points out that "the number of antenna towers, base stations, and repeaters used by a public safety agency are largely independent of the number of responders using that agency's wireless system where this number does not exceed 100 users and 85% of U.S. public safety agencies support no more than 100 users." In contrast, a commercial network operator will not employ more spectrum or equipment than necessary to produce a given amount of communications capacity at a certain quality level.


  • If our goal is a national interoperable public safety communications network with the economies of scale and standardization that entails, we should reconsider the policies of spectrum balkanization and apartheid. 
  • At least two competing licensees would help prevent the establishment of a strong incumbent monopolist.  
  • Spectrum should be allocated for commercial provision of public safety communications. That is, commercial carriers should be able to deploy networks over spectrum allocated for public safety. They should be able to sell excess capacity to private customers.
  • Licensees should be required to interconnect, and first responders must have priority on shared networks.
  • Existing public safety licensees should be allowed to sell or lease their spectrum to commercial providers of public safety communications. They could use the revenue to subscribe to a competing interoperable network.