Emergency responders to lobby for more spectrum

The nation’s emergency responders are gearing up for another attempt to convince Ottawa they need more prized 700 MHz spectrum for the proposed national wireless LTE emergency network than has already been allocated.

The country’s chiefs of police were told Tuesday at their annual conference in Sydney, N.S., that a good deal of the preparatory work for overseeing the network has been done.

However, retired Ottawa police inspector Lance Valcour, executive director of a group representing the country’s police, fire and paramedical agencies called the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG), told the chiefs they have more work to do.

In an interview Valcour said the chiefs were told Industry Canada will soon call for submissions on whether the planned network should get more spectrum. Police departments need to work through provincial government officials to persuade Ottawa, he said.

While the LTE network would use spectrum in the 700 MHz band like commercial operators such as Bell Mobility and Rogers Communications, it will be reserved exclusively for emergency responders. That way they won’t have to fight for bandwidth on congested public networks.

Federal officials, CITIG, the chiefs of police and other agencies have been working with a group of provincial and territorial government officials called the Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management (SOREM) on how the network will be overseen.

The plan shown Tuesday to the police chiefs – which has yet to be approved by Industry Canada – calls for the spectrum licences to be held by a not-for-profit corporation to develop standards to assure the network can be accessed by emergency responders across the country and by their counterparts along the U.S. border.

The exact membership of the corporation’s board hasn’t been set, but it will likely be a combination of representatives from each the provinces and territories, plus a number of emergency responders.

The corporation would sub-lease the spectrum to organizations in each province, which would have the responsibility for contracting for the construction of the network.

Valcour said that could be done in a number of ways – a province could decide to fund construction itself, contract with a cellular carrier or create a public-private partnership for construction.

Despite some gaps the overall structure has been approved by provinces and territories, Valcour said.

An independent corporation has to be in charge “because we’re attempting something that’s never been done before,” Valcour said. “This cannot be run at the speed of government; it needs to be run at the speed of a nimble corporation”

“If we have to wait for a federal/provincial/territorial decision ratification on every decision we make we’ll never move this issue forward”

Meanwhile in the U.S. work on a public safety LTE network using similar spectrum is moving ahead. However, that network is being funded by Washington.

Valcour said the Canadian network could get federal funding if Ottawa changes the rules for infrastructure grants under the Build Canada program. At the moment, public safety communications networks don’t qualify for grants. CITIG has urged the government to make the change.

Meanwhile, he said, technical work is going on for an Ottawa-area trial of the spectrum and proposed mobile devices.

Under ideal circumstances, Valcour said, some municipalities might start trials next year.

But the emergency responders are determined the network should get more than the 10 MHz of spectrum Industry Canada has set aside across the country for a public safety wireless data network in the 700 Mhz band.

The government has also limited the amount of spectrum commercial wireless carriers such as Bell Mobility and Rogers Communications will be able to bid on next year to 10MHz blocks.

But Valcour said it shouldn’t be a problem for the government to say yes for more spectrum to the public safety network but no to commercial operators.

“It think it’s very easy for them to say it. I would challenge you to say that in front of a room full of firefighters and paramedics and police officers that put their lives at risk. I think it’s very easy for Industry Canada to say that … In fact I think it’s really hard not to do that.”

An independent study done last year for Public Safety Canada “clearly shows” a public safety wireless network needs 20Mhz blocks of spectrum, he said.

In addition, he said, the U.S. recently set aside 20 MHz blocks for its new public safety network. It wouldn’t look good to the Americans, he suggested, if Canada set aside less spectrum. For one thing, he said, it would mean wireless devices used by Americans couldn’t be used on the Canadian network.

And he suggests CITIG and its supporters will play hardball: If the government says no, “it will have to answer why didn’t you follow the scientific proof that was presented?”

 “If the American first responders require this … why wouldn’t the Canadian government do that?”

The creation of a national public safety wireless network would be a significant undertaking. Valcour, a retired Ottawa city police inspector who sat on the Canadian Chiefs of Police informatics committee for a decade, says it will be the biggest public safety information communications and technology and project in the country’s history.

The idea is to give public safety agencies a separate cellular network from busy commercial networks run by Inc. and other operators. Not only would a separate network be better able to handle heavy high-definition video first responders need to send to dispatchers, it would also interoperate with an identical network being set up in the U.S. That way should an emergency take place along the border where agencies from both countries would have to respond, workers could communicate with each other.


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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com
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