WFCA Announces Support of Public Safety Spectrum Alliance

Published: 8/14/2020
Author: Scott Miller, President, Western Fire Chiefs Association

New alliance calls for allocation of public-safety 4.9 GHz spectrum to FirstNet Authority
Written by Donny Jackson

Public safety should retain control of its 50 MHz of 4.9 GHz spectrum—airwaves that the FCC is considering for at least some commercial use—through an allocation to the FirstNet Authority, according to the newly formed Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA).

“We’re concerned that public safety is going to lose spectrum that we might need,” Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association and former vice chairman of the FirstNet Authority, said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “[The PSSA was] created to provide a voice to public safety, saying, ‘We think that the 4.9 GHz spectrum needs to remain with public safety’—that’s Position 1.

“Position 2 is that we think that [the 4.9 GHz spectrum is] best given to the people who have proven themselves as the watchdogs for public safety on these matters, and that’s the FirstNet Authority. We trust that they’ll develop an effective working plan for how to go forward.”

In 2003, the FCC allocated 50 MHz of nationwide spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band to public safety, which has used the airwaves to support a variety of use cases, from point-to-point backhaul to ad-hoc mesh-networking solutions. However, multiple FCC commissioners have expressed concern that the 4.9 GHz spectrum band is underutilized and should be considered for spectrum-sharing use or a potential commercial auction.

When the FCC established the 4.9 GHz public-safety band, conventional wisdom in the commercial wireless industry was that only spectrum below 3 GHz was useful for mobile applications. However, that sentiment has changed drastically with technology evolutions during the past several years. Today, gaining access to mid-band spectrum—a category that includes 4.9 GHz frequencies—has become a priority for commercial wireless carriers seeking to deploy high-speed 5G networks.

With this in mind, public safety should retain its mid-band spectrum at 4.9 GHz, according to PSSA spokesman Kim Zagaris, a retired fire chief and the Western Fire Chiefs Association’s wildfire policy and technology advisor.

“We’re really trying to project down the road to the future—not our past, but to our future,” Zagaris said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “It’s the key to what we do.

“The other key is data, data, data. The world is driven by data. So, we believe this is where we need to go. We need to set things up. We’re teeing it up, and we’re going to make a run to try to take care of the responsibility public safety has to provide for the community—for the counties, for the regions, for the states, and for this nation.”

Former FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swenson, another PSSA member, echoed this sentiment.

“It seems premature, I think, for the FCC to look at repurposing the band or auctioning the band before it’s determined exactly what the public-safety needs are in the future,” Swenson said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “That’s why we’re really advocating for FirstNet to develop the plan to decide what’s best for public safety, instead of giving it to someone else and then finding ourselves—five or 10 years down the road—with a [public-safety spectrum] gap.

“We’re on the cusp of 5G, and FirstNet’s made some 5G investment in the core … We’re going to advocate that we be smart about this. Instead of just responding to all of the people who are interested in this, I think we need to think about public safety first.”

FirstNet Authority officials learned of the PSSA proposal’s specifics yesterday and are in the process of reviewing it, according to information that a FirstNet Authority spokesperson provided to IWCE’s Urgent Communications.

Established by Congress in 2012, the FirstNet Authority is charged with overseeing the development and self-sustaining operation of the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN), known as FirstNet. In March 2017, the FirstNet Authority announced that it had signed a 25-year agreement with AT&T to be the nationwide contractor for FirstNet.

AT&T officials recently announced that FirstNet supports more than 1.5 million connections for more than 13,000 public-safety agencies. In addition, the public-safety LTE network being deployed on the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority is more than 80% complete and is about a year ahead of contracted schedule.

In addition, FirstNet subscribers have access to more than 100 approved devices and a robust catalog of vetted applications.

Such accomplishments make the FirstNet Authority to consult with public safety to evaluate and determine the best use of the 50 MHz of 4.9 GHz spectrum, according to Swenson.

“Fortunately, we’re in a position to have this discussion because of the success of FirstNet,” Swenson said. “If FirstNet was a disaster, we couldn’t even have this discussion. So, it’s a real tribute to everyone who worked on it [FirstNet] that it’s a success, because it can be used as a platform.”

Johnson agreed, noting the past success of the FirstNet Authority board to devise a solution for the NPSBN that was both technically and financially feasible.

“I guess that’s what gives us confidence,” Johnson said. “Even though the people are different, the mission’s not. It gives us confidence that they have seen that vision work.

“They’ll use their best judgment to figure out how they can best serve public safety, and we have supreme confidence that they will do it in the best way possible. So, if they take that approach, then they’ve used PSCR, NIST and commercial insight to arrive at that conclusion. That’s why we think it makes so much sense to do it that way, rather than some other way.”

Johnson also expressed confidence in the FCC.

“We believe that the FCC is well-intentioned and that they just don’t want to see important spectrum sit fallow,” Johnson said. “They’ve always demonstrated an interest in serving public safety, and we believe they will again.

“I think this is the beginning of the conversation about how to do it. We have a vision about how to do it and an opinion on how to do it. I think, in a reasonable amount of time, we’ll work our way through to what is the right answer. I think we have the historical context for why this makes sense.”

But legal sources speaking with IWCE’s Urgent Communications indicated that reallocating public safety’s 4.9 GHz spectrum to the FirstNet Authority likely would not be a straightforward process, even if FCC commissioners agree conceptually with the PSSA’s proposal. The FCC typically does not allocated spectrum to federal agencies like the FirstNet Authority, which is an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

The FCC did designate the FirstNet Authority as the licensee for the 20 MHz of 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum, but that action was mandated by the 2012 law passed by Congress. For legal and political reasons, such legislation might be needed to give the FirstNet Authority control of the public-safety 4.9 GHz spectrum, according to legal sources.

Also unclear is what the FirstNet Authority legally would be required to do, if it was granted a license to the 4.9 GHz frequencies.

Simply integrating the airwaves into the FirstNet Authority’s existing spectrum portfolio—currently utilized by AT&T—initially might seem like the most straightforward path, but other wireless carriers likely would raise considerable legal and political opposition to such an approach.

Making the 4.9 GHz spectrum available through some sort of bidding process could be a legally safe process on the surface, but it prove to be complicated as a practical matter. If a contractor other than AT&T won the bid for access to the 4.9 GHz spectrum, it is not clear how that contractor technically and legally would integrate with the existing AT&T-built FirstNet system.

Johnson said the PSSA is “non-prescriptive” about how the FirstNet Authority should handle such details.

“We are as open as the FirstNet board thinks is prudent about how they go about it, and I think it would be a mistake … for us today to articulate how we think it needs to be resolved,” Johnson said.

“We had this same challenge back when we did the D Block. It would have been really easy to just say, ‘This is how it should happen,’ and we resisted that temptation. We learned from that. So, we’re going to resist that temptation again and say, ‘Whether it goes to AT&T or whether everybody else on the planet gets to bid on it, it’s not our decision.’ It’s not our call. We trust [the FirstNet Authority] to make the right choice.”

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