Late last week, the FCC released a white paper detailing the cost model for its planned deployment of a nationwide, 700 MHz wireless broadband network for public safety. Because FCC officials have been relatively open with their ideas, the white paper contained few surprises, but it did provide a greater level of granularity about its proposal.

Most notably, the white paper indicates that the public-safety network can be built for as little as $6.3 billion, if the public-safety network is deployed at the same as a commercial network. The fundamental logic is that it is much less expensive for a crew to deploy infrastructure for two networks (one for commercial, the other for public safety) on a single trip to a given site than to do the same work in separate trips.

How great is the difference? According to the FCC, a standalone public-safety network would cost $15.7 billion, or about 150% more than building out the network in conjunction with commercial carriers. In addition, the FCC’s projected operating costs of a shared network for the first decade of existence would be $6 billion to $10 billion. Meanwhile, projected operating costs for a standalone network would be $25 billion to $30 billion.

The good news is that the FCC’s estimated cost of $40 billion to $46 billion for a standalone network is in the ballpark of the estimates that commercial operators provided more than two years ago, adding legitimacy to the projections. Of course, the bad news is that $40 billion is a lot of money, particularly in a down economy — and, by comparison, the $12 billion to $16 billion price tag the FCC has placed on a shared network seems like a bargain.

Given this, it is paramount that the public-safety network be built in conjunction with commercial networks to make the FCC cost vision realistic. If this cannot be done, the FCC’s request to Congress for financial support for the public-safety network — $6.5 billion for capital expenditures and additional operational funding authorization — won’t come close to being enough.

While other 700 MHz commercial licensees exist, the primary commercial partnership options for public safety appear to be Verizon Wireless, AT&T and the carrier (or carriers) that win the D Block auction the FCC plans to conduct early next year. Providing public safety with flexibility and choices in partners is a major tenet of the FCC plan.

While partnering with a D Block licensee should not be an issue, the problem is that Verizon Wireless plans to launch 700 MHz LTE service in 30 markets covering about one-third of the U.S. population by the end of the year. AT&T is not expected to be far behind in its 4G rollouts.

These rollout plans raise a legitimate question whether the window of opportunity to have a simultaneous buildout with these two wireless giants has closed. In an interview with Urgent Communications yesterday, Jamie Barnett — chief of the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau — said he believes last week’s establishment of the Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC) will help ensure that the technical requirements are in place in time for public-safety entities seeking waivers to be early movers can “catch the technological wave” in their buildouts.

Another nagging issue in the FCC plan is the relationship between the D Block winner and public safety. If public safety chooses to partner with the D Block winner in a shared network model, there should be no trouble with the D Block licensee and public safety being able to use their respective 10 MHz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum.

However, if public safety chooses to partner with another carrier or build its own network — the only options for waiver entities, because there is no D Block licensee right now — many industry sources believe a guard band will be needed between public safety and a commercial D Block winner.

Barnett said the FCC’s “preliminary indications” are that a guard band will not be needed, if both the public-safety and commercial networks use LTE, as called for in the current FCC vision.

“We were also influenced by the fact that spectrum allocations for LTE in other countries really don’t include guard bands between adjacent operators, so I don’t know why we wouldn’t be able to achieve the same efficiencies here,” Barnett said.

While no explicit guard band exists between some U.S. 700 MHz spectrum allocations, industry sources have told me that carriers have built in spectral buffers — internal guard bands, if you will — to avoid interference issues. Regardless of the actual solution, the guard-band situation needs be resolved quickly, so both public-safety entities and D Block licensees can accurately assess how much usable spectrum they will have before investing millions — or billions — into networks.

Meanwhile, some have questioned whether the FCC’s cost figures are accurate. It’s certainly a topic worthy of review and debate, but the number of potential variables is so great that they can’t be addressed within this column.

What is clear is that there are number of questions surrounding the proposed public-safety network that need to be answered quickly. These issues have to resolved soon — in the next several months, if not weeks — so Congress can take appropriate funding/spectral actions and public-safety entities can have the option of building out their LTE networks in conjunction with commercial carriers, as the FCC has envisioned.

To the FCC’s credit, the establishment of ERIC is a sign that agency officials understand the urgency of the situation, but it is important that this sentiment be shared by lawmakers on Capitol Hill for the agency’s plan to be realized. If this is not done, the cost of a public-safety network promises to be dramatically higher.

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