Emergency agencies watch U.S. for wireless network

Billion-dollar wireless carriers aren’t the only ones anxiously waiting for the Harper government to set policies for the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction. Public safety agencies including police department and other first responders to emergencies are, too.

Through a group called the Tri-Services Special Purpose Committee, representing national associations of chiefs of police, fire chiefs and emergency medical services, they have urged Industry Canada to set aside 20 Mhz of spectrum in a special part of the 700 MHz band across the country for an exclusive public safety wireless network.

The network would allow them for the first time to share voice, video and data from crime and emergency scenes to speed their ability to save lives and property.

But the plan, also urged in a broad way by Public Safety Canada, a federal ministry, has run into a hitch: A similar proposal in the United States covering what is called there the D-block in the 700 MHz band has yet to be approved by Congress. And synchronizing plans with the Americans is vital. It would make no sense to dedicate frequencies not compatible with U.S. agencies, say supporters of the Canadian plan. Among other reasons, it would make buying handset and network equipment cheaper if both countries used similar frequencies. Nor would it make sense for us to go ahead with our network while if the Americans abandon theirs.

“A lot is riding on the U.S. and what they’ll do,” says Supt. Pascal Rodier of the B.C. Ambulance Service, a co-chair of the Tri-Services committee.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to commit (here) until we know that the Americans are going to do. We were hoping by now they would have made their decision.”

The committee may not have long to wait. Last week as part of a new jobs plan, President Barack Obama proposed setting aside the D-block for the public safety network, setting up an independent agency to run it and giving it US$50 million towards its eventual US$10 billion construction.

According to knowledgeable sources in Washington, the proposal will be dealt with by a special Congressional committee scheduled to report to Congress by Nov. 23 on deficit reduction. Congress has to vote that day on whatever proposals the committee makes.

However, there are members of Congress that oppose giving away valuable spectrum instead of auctioning it. It is also opposed by some public safety agencies there that wouldn’t be included in the network.

It is conceivable that the proposal – which in a similar form was bought to Congress over a year ago and got nowhere — will get voted down in a country torn between cutting the deficit and spending to ease the recession.

While the Canadians would like to see progress, in one sense there is no rush. As BCE Inc.’s Bell Mobility and Rogers Communications Inc. pointed out in their submissions earlier this year to Industry Canada on the proposed public safety wireless network, there are no dedicated handsets or network gear yet for the D-block. So they urged Ottawa to wait until Washington has clarified its plans before making a move.

Also, the plans for the network on this side of the border aren’t completely formed. In its submission to Industry Canada, Public Safety Canada calls for a “system of systems” linking local, provincial and federal agencies. The business plan and exactly how the network would work would depend on negotiations with those agencies and, probably, existing carriers.

The Tri-Services’ committee plan is similarly open, although it recognizes that it will have to leverage to some degree the infrastructure of existing carriers. That went over like a lead balloon, Rodier reports.

Only one carrier accepted an invitation for an explanatory meeting and “not much was really said.”

 “Part of our challenge,” says Rodier, “is we are trying to plan for the future with stuff that hasn’t been invented yet.”

It does suggest that when the public safety spectrum isn’t needed, it could be used by private carriers like Bell [TSX, NYSE: BCE] and Rogers [TSX: RCI.A and RCI.B]. However, the committee insists on public service agencies having control over the off switch.

“We want to be in the boardroom making the decision as to who can have it and who can use it,” Rodier said. On the other hand, that could create a nightmare if a consumer is kicked off the network in the middle of a 911 call.

Public Safety Canada also says its community has to own and control the spectrum, and in contrast to the Tri-Services committee, argues strongly that a shared network is almost impossible.

What the agencies don’t want is to share the network during an emergency with people standing nearby sending videos to their friends, thereby slowing traffic to command posts.

Although the carriers haven’t stood up to block the idea of a public safety network, the fact that it involves the valuable 700 MHz band may be a stumbling block. Carriers are eager to get hold of the frequencies for their consumer networks because of its ability to carry signals over longer distances than the spectrum they have.

Some carriers may agree to the concept but reject giving the network access to 20 MHz of it.

A result of the investigations into how first responders coped in the U.S. immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is hoped a national pubic safety communications network will boost co-ordination among agencies.

It’s not just the ability of a police or fireman to pull out a cellphone and start shooting video, Rodier points out. Public safety agencies would love to pull together feeds from video cameras on streets, in buses or in schools, for example.

Earlier this month Rodier and his fellow committee chairs met with the the senior assistant deputy minister of Industry Canada  to present their proposal. It was one of a number of meetings the ministry has held with carriers and others prior to the setting of the 700 MHz auction rules.

His group came away from the meeting good, although Rodier admitted the government hasn’t given its position away.

“Lots of people say absolutely spectrum is important,” for public safety agencies, he says, but “no one is saying what they’re willing to give us, or in what fashion.”
(An earlier version of this story wrongly said the Tri-Services committee met earlier this month with Industry Minister Christian Paradis. )

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