A 'Bottom-up' Milestone towards a Safer America

Our friend and Seattle’s dynamic tech leader, Bill Schrier, recently issued a Request for Information to cull out innovative public/private partnerships to deliver a mobile broadband and mission-critical voice capability for the metropolitan area – an idea surfaced during our technology roundtable earlier this year in LA in support of President Obama’s National Wireless Initiative to build a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network for America’s first responders.  

More heartening is the spirit of voluntary collaboration as the RFI was released with the support of at least 10 other state and local governments, including several actively engaged in the build-out of wireless public safety infrastructure. In the spirit of “bottom-up” change, that group includes state governments (Oregon, Iowa, and Arizona), cities (Honolulu, HI; Chesapeake, VA; Boston, MA; Charlotte, NC; Pembroke Pines, FL) and regions (San Francisco BayRICS; Calumet, Outagamie, and Winnebago Counties, WI).

The public safety leaders from these states and localities share the common goal of identifying technology, business models, operational structures, and other key attributes of a public safety network that will depend in large measure on the expertise, services and infrastructure of commercial carriers and other private vendors.  By joining together to identify and pursue their shared interests and opportunities, public safety agencies from across the country can proceed in unison to develop a truly seamless nationwide network, a stark contrast to the state-by-state approach that has led to a patchwork of non-interoperable communications networks in the past. Joining together instead of each city and state building its own unique network will also be far more cost effective. A recent trial of a new commercial architecture for the radio access network indicates that the costs of building and maintaining base stations can be slashed dramatically, with operating expenses and capital expenses reduced by 50% and 30% respectively.

On a parallel course, NIST’s Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT) is seeking comment on a draft report – “Desirable Properties of a National Public Safety Network” – recently issued by its subcommittee on public safety networks, under the leadership of VCAT Chair Vint Cerf.  Like the Seattle RFI, the VCAT draft report seeks to identify the key attributes of a nationwide public safety network.  When Congress enacts legislation leading to the establishment of a suitable governance model for the nationwide network, that governing body will be able to hit the ground running based on the findings of these inquiries when it comes to critical areas like resiliency, redundancy, and network sharing. And with the associated R&D investments, the public safety community will have the resources needed to test, validate and scale innovative approaches to ensure they can keep our families safe through meeting these requirements.

We are close. In June, under the leadership of Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Hutchison, the Senate Commerce Committee passed S. 911, demonstrating strong bipartisan support. In September, the President reiterated his commitment through the American Jobs Act, mirroring the relevant provisions of S. 911. Now leaders in the House are working to craft spectrum legislation that likewise would provide the public safety community with the needed resourcesto get the job done.

We are hopeful. The deployment of a seamless nationwide public safety network, built in collaboration with commercial broadband providers, will be a first-of-its kind endeavor.  Now is the time for Congress to get the ball across the goal line so that the President can sign comprehensive spectrum legislation and deliver to our first responders – and our families – all of the public safety benefits of a 21st-century digital infrastructure.

Aneesh Chopra is U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Terrell McSweeny is Assistant to the President and Domestic Policy Advisor

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