Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tune In Tomorrow: Digital TV Frees Spectrum for Public Safety -- Someday

Adapted from "Calling All Cars," my "Futurist" column in the June 22 issue of CQ Weekly.

My mother-in-law's kitchen television (shown here with its owner) is as indestructible as a cockroach. Having assumed that the nationwide move to digital TV would mark the end of the ancient black-and-white's long life, my wife's mom was delighted to turn on the set after the June 12 switchover date and find that one analog channel was still on the air. A Tuscaloosa station, owned and operated by the University of Alabama, was among the low-power local broadcasters that Congress exempted from the conversion, so the dependable little relic would avoid the landfill for a little longer.

By the time most analog transmissions went off the air the week before last, most people who owned TVs as old as my mother-in-law's had either purchased new digital converter boxes for their sets or signed up for cable, fiber or satellite service, which were unaffected by the digital transition. Sets of more recent vintage typically came equipped to turn digital signals into high-resolution images of dancing celebrities and all the gory evidence that makes "CSI Wherever" so popular.

As it happens, the needs of real-world police investigators were among the selling points for this switch. Yes, moving to digital "will free up parts of the valuable broadcast spectrum for public safety communications (such as police, fire departments, and rescue squads)" -- as a frequently-asked-questions page on, the federal government's homepage for the transition, prominently (and some might even say deceptively) notes. But many of those "important benefits" of the recent switch are at least several years away -- held up in part by a failed effort to find a private-sector partner to develop this valuable new communications system.

Most of the airwaves the digital transition freed up were actually auctioned for commercial use last year, generating nearly $20 billion for the Treasury. The Federal Communications Commission separately put up for bid a sliver of the broadcast spectrum in the 700 megahertz band for public safety uses. The plan was to create a public-private partnership to combine this 10 megahertz -- from a segment of the spectrum called the D Block -- with a nearby 10 megahertz that was previously put aside to help create a super-fast, interoperable national network for emergency communications.

This shared wireless broadband network would do more than address longstanding problems with reducing interference and making sure disparate systems could be linked in a crisis. Firefighters and police officers could be wired up like the early astronauts, sending real-time feeds on their vital signs and locations to their supervisors. These first-responders could quickly gain access to the blueprints of a building on fire, say, or the police intelligence reports on a hostage-taker. An emergency room doctor could begin monitoring an inbound patient's vital signs before the ambulance even arrived. And images captured by digital cameras mounted in police cars or fire trucks could be beamed instantly to dispatchers, rather than stored for retrieval on hard drives — or even, as the chief technologist for a major Midwestern municipality sheepishly told me, on a VHS recorder in the trunk. (And that municipality's police are hardly alone in using such outdated and inefficient media for storing and accessing video.)

While ideas for using faster networks are plentiful, safety officials know better than most that high-speed chases are unpredictable. In this case, their plans for a national network took an unexpected turn early last year, when questions about price, penalties and unclear requirements appeared to scare off any qualifying bids for the D Block.

While the FCC has been rethinking its plans for how to license the D Block, public safety groups representing police chiefs, fire chiefs and sheriffs, among others, have been discussing other ways to move forward. One proposal would let interested regional partnerships begin building their own broadband networks using the available frequencies. The District of Columbia has already done so as a pilot project. New Jersey, New York City, Boston and a San Francisco Bay area consortium are formally asking to follow suit, and New York state and the Seattle area are making plans to join them.

Under this model, these states and communities would move forward using mutually accepted standards that would eventually allow them to connect with whatever national network emerges -- in effect, creating a network of networks. At the same time, those networks would provide testing grounds for government and business applications hoping to take advantage of all that connectivity.

The Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corporation, a nonprofit organization formed two years ago to hold the license for the original 10 megahertz set aside for emergency communication, generally backs the idea. But there are obstacles. First, FCC waivers would be needed for any cities, regions or states that wanted to use the D Block frequencies or the nearby spectrum currently licensed to the nonprofit corporation.

More significantly, the standards for a shared national network are still a work in progress. So, for instance, a community that decided now to build its network using an emerging wireless service called Long-Term Evolution, or LTE, might have to reboot and rebuild if a rival next-generation standard called WiMax ultimately won the day. Major players in the mobile industry have placed big bets on each and will fight to keep from being bumped out of the game early.

These complications aside, Congress is likely to want more action and less static when it comes to getting broadband services up and running for the nation's emergency responders. On that technological issue, even my mother-in-law is getting the picture, especially now that she has given up all but one channel to help solve the problem.

(Image and Sources: The photo of my mother-in-law and her kitchen TV was taken by R.C. Sneed. In addition to the links above, background on these issues can be found in the video and prepared testimony from a Sept. 16, 2008, House homeland security subcommittee hearing -- "Interoperability in the Next Administration: Assessing the Derailed 700 MHz D Block Public Safety Spectrum Auction." This column also depended heavily on the wisdom of Bill Schrier, Seattle's chief technology officer -- also known by readers of his blog as the Chief Seattle Geek. However, any conclusions presented here are mine alone.)

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