TechKnowledge No. 109

Public Safety and Public Spectrum

By James Plummer
November 6, 2007

The Federal Communications Commission has at last finalized the rules for a January auction of spectrum in the 700 MHz range for consumer broadband applications. Among the many rules is one specifying that 10 MHz of the spectrum being auctioned as one large nationwide block will be tied to an additional 24 MHz of national “public safety” spectrum. The winning bidder will be able to use all the spectrum, but must give priority to “public safety” users in this part of it. The plan raises questions about the wisdom of allowing central planners to establish a nationwide, one-size-fits-all solution, even while moving more spectrum into productive use.

The winning bidder for that chunk of spectrum will have to build the hardware for an elaborate, nationwide, “public safety” wireless network. Besides depressing the value of the spectrum up to 25 percent (by the FCC’s own account), that rule gives the edge in the bidding to well-capitalized firms that can absorb the costs of building such a network before any revenue stream begins to flow.

The auction rules are largely based on those proposed by a well-financed, albeit new, company packed with former FCC officials called Frontline Wireless. Frontline had proposed not only the “public safety network” scheme, but also a broad package of “net neutrality” regulations including “open applications” rules that would bar the spectrum owner form blocking any kind of digital content sent over its network by its customers.

Despite its aggressive “net neutrality” rhetoric, the public-safety system proposed by Frontline and adopted with little change by the FCC is anything but neutral when it comes to managing traffic. Federal, state, and local government traffic will be able to instantaneously seize the bandwidth over that 24 MHz of spectrum as long as government officials can claim an emergency purpose. Thus private-sector customers could find their traffic de-prioritized over more than 70 percent of that system in favor of government-initiated uses.

Proponents of this decidedly non-neutral public-private system attempt to make their case by citing emotional issues such as 9/11, claiming that the lack of a national, interoperable emergency-operations frequency was at fault for the failure of communications with fire fighters trapped in the World Trade Center towers. In fact, there was an interoperable system, with the Fire Department and other state and local agencies all able to communicate on the same channel. Yet according to a report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a mistaken assertion by someone working with FDNY that the interoperable channel was broken caused most of the communications problems that day. The 9/11 Commission reported, “The activation of transmission on the master handset required … that a second button be pressed. That second button was never activated on the morning of September 11.” The all-too-human failings of government officials cannot be cured simply by throwing more money and technology at them. A multibillion-dollar infrastructure, no matter how state-of-the-art, cannot go back in time and flip the switch that emergency services personnel neglected.

Central planners in the federal bureaucracy may have overlooked simple, effective, and frugal solutions such as giving federal authorities multiband end-user equipment that can tune in to all the frequencies used by local emergency services and first responders. This technology exists right now. A company called Atheros makes chipsets for two-way radios which could tune and transmit in any band between 900MHz and 5.8GHz. But FCC Part 15 rules prohibit one device from operating in so many different bands. Until the FCC deregulates radio and the company can issue updated firmware, Atheros’ operating system will block the radios from doing so.

If the FCC granted a simple waiver to the manufacturers of special radios for federal emergency officials, the feds could easily coordinate with locals without setting aside such a large chunk of commercially valuable spectrum. But such a plan would not build bureaucracy or have the public-relations glitz of a shiny new multibillion-dollar wireless infrastructure.

The history of similar emergency systems does not build confidence in the idea of “public safety” spectrum. The Emergency Alert System designed by the FCC for broadcasting news of natural disasters or catastrophic attacks was not even activated on 9/11-but it has been used to issue “Amber Alerts” for children caught in the middle of custody battles. And just this summer, EAS accidentally seized control of television and radio stations in Chicago and the Midwest, broadcasting to millions a WGN radio announcer wondering aloud what the beeps were about. Bringing this kind of management to a nationwide wireless network would be highly problematic, not to mention open to political abuse.

If that sounds bad, consider how the FCC’s public safety spectrum project could make dissemination of emergency information to the public even worse. As early adopters of digital television have realized by now, there is an important difference between analog and digital signals in terms of degradation. When an analog signal degrades, static noise comes into the picture and audio, but the communication can still remain discernible. When a digital signal degrades below a certain threshold, the entire communication is lost. That makes digital communications a poor choice for emergency situations in which transmitters may be damaged.

On 9/11, television stations moved to backup analog transmitters when digital transmitters went down. In New Orleans, television stations are just recently able to transmit DTV again for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. During and after the storm, victims and first responders relied on battery-operated analog television and radio to receive information. Digital technology is such a drain on power that battery-operated DTVs are still not widely available. Once they are, they are certain not to last as long as analog TVs would in an emergency situation. The newest, fanciest technology is not always the best, particularly during an emergency situation where transmitters and receivers may be partially damaged.

In times of crisis, we need flexible systems infused with local knowledge, using a mix of technologies and not solely dependent on any single one. If our public officials set aside that insight and concentrate only on building the biggest, best, and newest system, their hubris could cost lives in future disasters.

James Plummer is the research assistant for Telecom, Internet and Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit www.cato.org/tech/tk-index.html.