Public Safety and Public Spectrum


The Federal Communications Commission has at last finalized the rules for a Januaryauction of spectrum in the 700 MHz range for consumer broadbandapplications. Among the many rules is one specifying that 10 MHz ofthe spectrum being auctioned as one large nationwide block will betied to an additional 24 MHz of national "public safety" spectrum.The winning bidder will be able to use all the spectrum, but mustgive priority to "public safety" users in this part of it. The planraises questions about the wisdom of allowing central planners toestablish a nationwide, one-size-fits-all solution, even whilemoving more spectrum into productive use.

The winning bidder for that chunk of spectrum will have to buildthe hardware for an elaborate, nationwide, "public safety" wirelessnetwork. Besides depressing the value of the spectrum up to 25percent (by the FCC's own account), that rule gives theedge in the bidding to well-capitalized firms that can absorb thecosts of building such a network before any revenue stream beginsto flow.

The auction rules are largely based on those proposed by awell-financed, albeit new, company packed with former FCC officialscalled Frontline Wireless. Frontline had proposed not only the "public safety network"scheme, but also a broad package of "net neutrality" regulationsincluding "open applications" rules that would bar the spectrumowner form blocking any kind of digital content sent over itsnetwork by its customers.

Despite its aggressive "net neutrality" rhetoric, thepublic-safety system proposed by Frontline and adopted with littlechange by the FCC is anything but neutral when it comes to managingtraffic. Federal, state, and local government traffic will be ableto instantaneously seize the bandwidth over that 24 MHz of spectrumas long as government officials can claim an emergency purpose.Thus private-sector customers could find their trafficde-prioritized over more than 70 percent of that system in favor ofgovernment-initiated uses.

Proponents of this decidedly non-neutral public-private systemattempt to make their case by citing emotional issues such as 9/11,claiming that the lack of a national, interoperableemergency-operations frequency was at fault for the failure ofcommunications with fire fighters trapped in the World Trade Centertowers. In fact, there was an interoperable system, with the FireDepartment and other state and local agencies all able tocommunicate on the same channel. Yet according to a report bythe National Institute of Standards and Technology, a mistakenassertion by someone working with FDNY that the interoperablechannel was broken caused most of the communications problems thatday. The 9/11 Commission reported, "The activation of transmission on themaster handset required . . . that a second button be pressed. Thatsecond button was never activated on the morning of September 11."The all-too-human failings of government officials cannot be curedsimply by throwing more money and technology at them. Amultibillion-dollar infrastructure, no matter how state-of-the-art,cannot go back in time and flip the switch that emergency servicespersonnel neglected.

Central planners in the federal bureaucracy may have overlookedsimple, effective, and frugal solutions such as giving federalauthorities multiband end-user equipment that can tune in to allthe frequencies used by local emergency services and firstresponders. This technology exists right now. A company calledAtheros makeschipsets for two-way radios which could tune and transmit in anyband between 900MHz and 5.8GHz. But FCC Part 15 rules prohibit one device fromoperating in so many different bands. Until the FCC deregulatesradio 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 ofspecial radios for federal emergency officials, the feds couldeasily coordinate with locals without setting aside such a largechunk of commercially valuable spectrum. But such a plan would notbuild bureaucracy or have the public-relations glitz of a shiny newmultibillion-dollar wireless infrastructure.

The history of similar emergency systems does not buildconfidence in the idea of "public safety" spectrum. The EmergencyAlert System designed by the FCC for broadcasting news of naturaldisasters or catastrophic attacks was not even activated on9/11-but it has been used to issue "Amber Alerts" for childrencaught in the middle of custody battles. And just this summer, EAS accidentally seized control of television and radiostations in Chicago and the Midwest, broadcasting to millions aWGN radio announcer wondering aloud what the beeps were about.Bringing this kind of management to a nationwide wireless networkwould be highly problematic, not to mention open to politicalabuse.

If that sounds bad, consider how the FCC's public safetyspectrum project could make dissemination of emergency informationto the public even worse. As early adopters of digital televisionhave realized by now, there is an important difference betweenanalog and digital signals in terms of degradation. When an analogsignal degrades, static noise comes into the picture and audio, butthe communication can still remain discernible. When a digitalsignal degrades below a certain threshold, the entire communicationis lost. That makes digital communications a poor choice foremergency situations in which transmitters may be damaged.

On 9/11, television stations moved tobackup analog transmitters when digital transmitters went down.In New Orleans, television stations are just recently able to transmit DTV again for the firsttime since Hurricane Katrina. During and after the storm, victimsand first responders relied on battery-operated analog televisionand radio to receive information. Digital technology is such adrain on power that battery-operated DTVs are still not widelyavailable. Once they are, they are certain not to last as long asanalog TVs would in an emergency situation. The newest, fanciesttechnology is not always the best, particularly during an emergencysituation where transmitters and receivers may be partiallydamaged.

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