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Office of the Vice President

FACT SHEET: 21st-Century Communications for our First Responders

Click HERE to read the full reportannounced today by Vice President Biden on how The President’s Wireless Innovation and Infrastructure Initiative can facilitate the transition to a next  generation, interoperable system.

The limitations of current public safety communications systems became tragically apparent on 9/11 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. [1] In those critical moments, law enforcement, firefighters, and other public safety officers could not talk to each other, putting the lives and mission of our first responders at risk.  Almost ten years after 9/11, our system of public safety communications remains outdated, both from a performance and cost-effectiveness standpoint. Traditional public safety devices and networks trail well behind those provided by modern commercial cellular operators.  Consequently, public safety is unable to take advantage of the sorts of innovative applications that many teenagers now take for granted.

With the ongoing rollout of the latest line of commercial wireless standards, there is anopportunity to develop and deploy a nationwide and interoperable wireless broadband network for our first responders.  With such a network in place, public safety will be able to welcome commercial developers of smartphones, tablets, and apps to connect to and compete within a unified public safety market.  And once developed appropriately, first responders will both be able to benefit from advanced wireless broadband technologies and, eventually, replace their high-cost, legacy communications infrastructure and devices.

To facilitate the development and deployment of a nationwide high speed wireless network for public safety, the President’s Wireless Innovation and Infrastructure Initiative will enable public safety agencies to transition away from the traditional, fragmented world of public safety communications to a next generation system.  This initiative will provide first responders with a network that offers far greater levels of interoperability and effectiveness than they possess today, ultimately saving billions of dollars by enabling public safety to benefit from the competition and innovation that major commercial enterprises already enjoy.

Benefits of a Nationwide Wireless Network For Public Safety Communications

  • A fully interoperable nationwide network:The nationwide network for public safety would provide interoperability for all first responders, preventing tragic failures of communication and coordination, reducing risks for first responders and the public.
  • Saving resources through a coordinated system for public safety communications: Today’s communication systems are not only outdated compared with more modern networks and devices, but they are split across thousands of Federal, State, and local jurisdictions that each pay maintenance and upkeep. The Department of Homeland Security alone spends around $1 billion on public safety communications and interoperability. A nationwide network will align today’s fragmented system, saving money while bringing capabilities into the 21st Century.
  • Unlocking the potential of commercial devices and infrastructure for public safety :Traditional public safety systems cost up to 10 times more than the same commercial device. A nationwide network will allow commercial developers of smartphones, tablets, and mobile networks and apps to connect a broad, unified market for public safety communications. According to the Congressional Research Service, participation by commercial carriers could drive down the cost of public safety radios from $4,000-$6,000 per unit, the price today, to $500 (or the cost of a smart phone). A 2010 FCC analysis found that leveraging available commercial systems could save considerably on capital expenditures compared with the existing, fragmented public safety communications infrastructure.
  • Providing better performance and cost effectiveness through innovation: Participation in a broader market, based on open standards, will also allow public safety to pick and choose the best technology from many more competing firms. This will spur competition and innovation to produce applications that improve safety and situational awareness, identification, and emergency health care. 
  • Enhancing the public safety missionDeveloping and deploying a hardened, reliable public safety broadband network will put new and important tools in the hands of first responders.  For example, first responders could use smartphones or other mobile devices to capture license plate information, quickly verify fingerprints and identity, link to multiple existing databases instantly, or transmit video and data from the scenes of accidents or emergencies.

 

Background On The President’s Wireless Initiative

The President’s Wireless Initiative pays for itself and would reduce the deficit by enabling more efficient use of wireless spectrum and freeing up spectrum for auction to the highest bidder.  In total, this effort would drive investment and innovation and generate $28 billion in auction revenue. After using some of the proceeds from spectrum auctions to reduce the deficit, the Initiative proposes four areas of investment to spur innovation in next generation wireless technologies for public safety:

  1. An investment in a nationwide wireless network for public safety communications based on 4G technology.
  2. Rollout of 4G services to at least 98% of the population.
  3. Reallocate the D Block – a key band of spectrum in the 700 megahertz range – to public safety.
  4. Creation of a Wireless Innovation Fund that, among other things, would support $500 million in research to meet the communications requirements of public safety.

 


[1] The 9-11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (July 22, 2004), available at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/911/Index.html; “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina:  Lessons Learned” (Feb. 2006), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/reports/katrina-lessons-learned.pdf

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