Urgent Matters

State RFPs for FirstNet highlight intriguing issues for public safety’s 700 MHz narrowband spectrum

by Donny Jackson

Table of Contents:

Oct 06, 2016

Many in public safety have expressed resistance to the notion that some states are exploring the notion of migrating 700 MHz public-safety narrowband spectrum to broadband use, citing legitimate concerns. But the reality is that public safety needs to examine all options to better utilize this band, or it could risk losing this very valuable spectrum.

Most attention associated with state requests for proposal (RFPs) seeking bidders willing to build statewide radio access networks (RANs) that would interoperate with the proposed FirstNet system has been focused on the public-safety LTE impact of those procurements—specifically, whether those states might choose the “opt-out” alternative after viewing the state deployment plan developed by FirstNet and its contractor.

But the New Hampshire and Alabama RFPs also include language that call for the winning bidder (Rivada Networks, in the case of New Hampshire) to explore the possibility of repurposing the 12 MHz of 700 MHz narrowband spectrum reserved for public safety in those states from land-mobile-radio (LMR) use to public-safety LTE use.

Not surprisingly, many in the public-safety community have noted multiple problems with the idea, from potential interference to existing users to the loss of national interoperability channels. All of the issues raised by organizations such as National Public-Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) and the National Region Planning Council (NRPC) in opposition to the notion of mixing LTE and LMR use in this band are legitimate concerns, and they would need to be addressed before any spectrum-policy changes could be implemented.

We will examine these technical details in future articles, but there is a big-picture issue that must be kept in mind when public-safety officials and regulators debate the future use of this spectrum: The 700 MHz narrowband channels are not being utilized fully across the country.

In fact, 12 states and territories already have canceled their statewide licenses in the band, and there is considerable speculation that many more will take similar action prior to the 2019 deadline for states to deploy 700 MHz narrowband systems that cover at least two-thirds of the state population or two-thirds of its geography.

Now, the statewide licenses represent only a chunk of the overall 700 MHz narrowband spectrum, but an examination of the FCC database reveals many states that have little utilization of the band on channels outside of those allocated initially for state use.

There are myriad potential reasons, including the fact that leveraging VHF spectrum’s better propagation characteristics makes more sense in states with large rural areas to cover. In addition, there is little question that construction of 700 MHz narrowband system has slowed considerably as federal grants to fund such networks have dwindled.

No matter what the reasons are, the bottom line is that significant chunks of valuable 700 MHz spectrum are being underutilized at a time when everyone in the government is working feverishly to find additional airwaves that can support society’s seemingly insatiable appetite for wireless bandwidth. No one is above having their spectrum utilization being reviewed—even a former “sacred cow” like the military is under scrutiny, and its longtime spectrum assets are being repurposed or subject to new spectrum-sharing schemes.

Public safety may find itself facing a similar situation with the 700 MHz narrowband spectrum in the near future, because the airwaves are not being utilized fully in too many areas of the country. While the issues raised by NPSTC and NRPC are legitimate and protecting existing systems—some of which are very large and robust in several states—must be the priority, the fact is that a long-term plan for this spectrum should be identified, or public safety may risk losing this valuable asset.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Bruce Jordan (not verified)
on Oct 6, 2016

If the railroads can get extensions on implementing PTC (Positive Train Control) then Public Safety should get extensions on the 700 MHz deadline considering the snail's pace of public funding.

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