Tom Van Essen, New York City’s fire commissioner on September 11, 2001, recently stated that emergency communications were no better today than in 2001. But the problem isn’t a lack of advanced technology or capability. Rather, it’s an issue of too many people calling at the same time when disaster strikes, which results in flooded networks.
With ever-smarter phones, more users and more services, we expect that the need to communicate in an emergency will continue to overwhelm existing networks.
There is ample technology to address the situation today. The question is not one of spectrum shortages; there is plenty around. The question is one of will, politics, and greed. Here are three solutions that will work today and one for the longer term:
- Better traffic shaping. The quickest and easiest solution is better traffic shaping. This means carriers have to know who the first responder are and then give them the highest priority access to the network during emergencies. This is something easier said than done. Questions, such as “who determines what is an emergency?” or “which sites and towers are most relevant?,” need to be answered before this solution can be widely deployed. We see this as an issue of regulatory will and greed by the carriers. Carriers seem more than able to slow down, or shape, large bandwidth consuming video streams. We believe all the networks shape traffic to prioritize postpaid traffic over less profitable prepaid traffic. This feature could be an element in the next generation 911 services specification, if not sooner. The fact that shaping or network management has not been implemented is a tragedy. The technology is here and widely available now.
- Unleashing local broadcasters. Consumers prefer personalized one to one communications and ubiquitous communication has spoiled us. As a result, we tend to ignore broadcast media. Local radio and television broadcasters are often the most reliable source of current information for people in the community, and for national networks. The image and information streams provided are advertiser supported and cost users nothing. Hence, we recommend putting television and radio receivers into mobile phones, as do many other nations. Part of the plan for digital television created standards for mobile television. The problem is that the FCC’s National Broadband implementation strategy calls for taking spectrum away from broadcasters and selling it to wireless carriers. Therefore, few are willing to commit capital to mobile television. Due to the FCC’s role in central planning, we believe this is a political issue.
- Dedicated Networks. Communication in the midst of battle is critical and our nation leads the world in these technologies. Applying some of this technology to the public service spectrum makes more than a little sense. Right now, spectrum is available in the 800 MHz band and the D-block in 700 MHz. The 800 MHz spectrum block is the result of consolidating various municipal systems that operated all over the 800 MHz band and subject to interference from Sprint’s Nextel network into a protected block. This process is nearly over with Sprint exchanging its 800 and 900 MHz spectrum for 1900 MHz bandwidth. This has cost billions of dollars, much of which Sprint has paid. The municipalities have also had to spend on new transceivers and other infrastructure. Many municipalities are operating in this band but more work is needed before we can realize the full benefit of the dedicated network. The other spectrum mentioned was the D-Block in the upper 700 MHz band. The D-block, which was offered in the FCC’s early 2008 auction, carried the provision that commercial users (carriers) stop operations in the event of a disaster. Unfortunately, the D block did not receive the minimum bid in the FCC’s auction in early 2008. Since that auction, politicians, public safety officials, carriers and television broadcasters, to name a few, have been engaged in a vigorous debate over what to do with the D-Block. This debate is about how best to keep the public safe. One camp wants to take the spectrum from local broadcasters and give that to public safety instead of D-Block, another says public safety needs to operate more efficiently and thus should not get the spectrum, and a third says give the D-Block to public safety.
To us, it boils down to public policy. Read, think, vote, and encourage your friends to do the same. That is the fastest path we see to solving this life and death problem.
Gerard Hallaren is a CFA and telecom securities analyst as well as a member of IEEE, the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.