FCC moves ahead on nationwide broadband system for first responders

Commission approves proposed rule to establish interoperability standards for public safety communications network.

The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved an order that would establish interoperability standards for a nationwide public safety communications network.

The order, which the commission will publish in the Federal Register as a proposed rule, requires all public safety mobile broadband networks to use a common air interface, specifically Long-Term Evolution, to support roaming and interoperable communications. LTE is compatible with older and new devices, making network interconnection and interoperability more likely as technology continues to evolve, according to an FCC fact sheet.

As part of the National Broadband Plan, FCC is promoting public safety wireless broadband communications and the need for a comprehensive public safety interoperable network. In the past, parts of the communications spectrum have been allocated piecemeal to public safety agencies. As a result, during an emergency such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack, the agencies cannot communicate seamlessly with one another.

FCC is seeking public comments on the network's architectural vision, effectiveness of open standards and interconnectivity, robustness and resiliency, roaming and priority access between public safety broadband networks, and interference coordination and protection, among other issues.

The commission's approval of the proposed rule builds on the technical requirements that state and local 700-MHz broadband waiver recipients are subject to already in the expansion of their regional public safety broadband networks.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that up to this point, nationwide interoperability for first responders has remained elusive: "We now have a real opportunity to ensure nationwide interoperability."

The proposed rule, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said, takes a comprehensive approach to identify issues that should be addressed when developing the network, including promoting greater coverage and performance.

In supporting the decision, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said the safety of the American people must always be at the top of the long list of challenges the FCC needs to tackle.

"We are fast approaching the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11, and the Sept. 11 Commission Report . . . lays out in chilling detail a lack of communications readiness that seriously hampered our country's ability to respond on that terrible day," he said. "More should have been done immediately after Sept. 11 to address the needs of public safety. . . . Quite frankly, it is inexcusable that we still do not have a nationwide interoperable public safety network."