The broadband stimulus needs to put public safety first

When analyzing broadband technology and business models, it is critical that both public and private sector needs be looked at both locally and nationally. Cities, counties and states should have certain freedoms in designing their own models, but there needs to be some common national goals especially in supporting public safety.

The lack of interoperable communications between US public safety agencies was exposed in the 1995 Oklahoma bombing. Sadly, these emergency communication networks today still do not have the ability to interconnect the 23 servicing public service agencies.  The national public safety vulnerability was supposed to be addressed when the US shuffled its analog spectrum over to offer the new digital 700 MHz wireless access. Sadly, an underfinanced single bid RFP response to build this national public safety network stopped this from happening. As major cell carriers spent billions cherry picking prime 700 MHz for spectrum for commercial use, public safety got nothing.

In a documented broadband stimulus BTOP commentary, I tried to emphasize the need to support public safety wireless networks, even as a potential grant requirement. With this need still unmet, I thought the broadband stimulus could put this requirement back on track. Fortunately, years ago the FCC put a plan B in place (4.9 GHz licensed spectrum) which offered public safety primary broadband access outside the 700 MHz spectrum model.  The broadband stimulus package now offers a potential path forward in addressing this critical need.

To understand the need for a public safety priority network, let me point out just one simple real world example.  Let’s say you had an emergency in your home and an ambulance came and needed to send immediate video and bios to the hospital. With 4.9 GHz priority access added to local broadband networks, the EMS personnel would have immediate priority access to the network, sending real time information to the hospital.  Without this access capability, I hope you have wireless Internet at home and I hope you remember what your network security password is (assuming you are conscious).

In the 28 March 2009 list of US cities and regions, 55 cities decided to build wireless infrastructures based on public safety and municipal use only.  With multi-use technology available to supporting these public/private radio designs, the time has come to deploy these capabilities in our local networks. These wireless networks could also be designed with network topologies offering survivable and interoperable features capable of supporting emergency responses.  Wireless mobile mesh designs offer three critical requirements needed in successfully designing network topologies supporting wireless communications in emergencies:

(1) Survivable: The proven surviving winner in past catastrophic events was IP-based low-powered wireless networks. If you recall, the Internet was built with the design capabilities of surviving an atomic war.  The United States witnessed the equivalent of this in the initial devastation during Hurricane Katrina which measured in strength the equivalent of eight Hiroshima atomic bombs. The surviving network topology allowed New Orleans Mayor Nagin to talk to President Bus via a wireless Internet VOIP connection.  The next operating communications infrastructure used after the storm was the wireless mesh network fortunately put in place earlier as a surveillance network in the New Orleans French Quarter.  It took months and even years for fixed wireline and wireless tower emergency and cellular networks to be completely rebuilt. Mesh and mobile wireless designs clearly demonstrated their network topology survivability in this recent catastrophic event.

(2) Interoperable: 802.11 has probably been the most successful wireless engineering standard to come out of the IEEE. Never has forward- and backward standards based compatibility been more successful in the design and deployment of wireless networks. Device access to these networks are globally accepted while the standards offer the capability of specialized security platforms supporting private access network requirements. These standards have demonstrated continued technological improvements offering higher broadband capacity, lower latency, longer network distance carrying capabilities and uninterrupted mobile conductivity.

(3) Primary Access: We have learned from past emergencies how commercial networks can crash and how spectrum bleed over can cripple access to public safety networks capacity. Pre-assigned rules and procedures can guarantee network access in emergencies. Organizations such as the National Public Safety Communication Council (NPSTC, “nip stick”) have readily available network technologies including the needed rules and procedures required in emergency communication networks.

It is critical to address emergency network primary access when reviewing the upgrade and expansion of broadband infrastructures. There are multi-purpose wireless radio designs in place today supporting both public and private sector access with migration methodologies supporting future wireless services. These high quality priority networks can be affordably added to support safety applications through public/private technology and business models.  Now is the time to get these wireless broadband models right while putting safety first.

About the author

Larry Karisny is the director of the ProjectSafety Business and Technology Cluster. ProjectSafety is a technology and business non-profit focused on the deployment and future proof testing of municipal broadband wireless networks. ProjectSafety’s unique broadband wireless Community Network Integration (CNI) model addresses both technology requirements and business needs in a single network solution for both the public and private sectors.


  1. Very well written article, and I completely agree that the current state of our emergency communications is a sad state of affairs. I fear for all of us in the event of a major disaster, our reliance on traditional land-lines has created an undesirable situation. As you point out, the applications and inherent resilience of wireless mesh technology present an invaluable tool for emergency personnel and first responders.