Emergency responders in Canada and the United States have been given exclusive access to 20 megahertz (MHz) of spectrum that formerly carried analog television signals. As yet, though, Canadian proponents have few committed resources to kick-start the proposed public safety broadband network, whereas their American counterparts have been promised USD $7 billion (CAD $9.24 billion).
Nevertheless, stakeholders like the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG) — a collaborative effort of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) and the Paramedic Chiefs of Canada (PCC) — applauded the official announcement in Canada’s 2015 federal budget last April, following years of preparatory studies and consultation. A small funding allocation was announced at that time, but the promised space in the valuable 700 MHz band is the far greater award.
“This network will significantly contribute towards supporting mission-critical emergency communications and interoperability between responders throughout North America,” observed Clive Weighill, President of CACP. “We are also highly appreciative of the $3 million investment towards its establishment.”
As envisioned, the high-speed mobile network would provide a means for police, fire, emergency medical services (EMS) and other crisis coordination/response agencies to wirelessly communicate, transmit and obtain data via a seamless connection to a dedicated public safety channel. Currently, these groups use existing commercial networks and a number of different, often incompatible technologies, creating scenarios, for example, in which firefighters inside a building can communicate only within the fairly limited range of their land mobile radio (LMR) systems.
Looking south of the border, plans for the ambitious First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet, arise from the World Trade Center disaster and subsequent recommendations of the U.S. government’s 911 Commission. In 2012, the U.S. Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act authorized FirstNet’s mandate to forge a high-speed, wireless broadband network with connected radio access for all U.S. states and territories.
Substantial infrastructure investment required
Frequencies in the 700 MHz spectrum travel longer distances and penetrate built structures more effectively than signals in higher ranges. Accordingly, space in the spectrum is commercially lucrative. Last year, Canada’s spectrum auction for the 700 MHz band raised $5.27 billion from the new licensees.
“The 700 MHz spectrum is the highest-quality wireless frequency ever auctioned in Canada,” then Minister of Industry James Moore noted as he announced the winning bidders in February 2014. “By comparison, the AWS (advanced wireless services) spectrum auction in 2008 raised $4.3 billion.”
Yet, while the system platform is inherently valuable, substantial investment will be required to build the network. In first announcing his vision for a wireless innovation and infrastructure initiative in 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama calculated a USD $10.7 billion price tag for the public safety component, including the $3.2 billion value of the spectrum.
FirstNet, an independent government authority, now has a USD $7-billion budget to construct the public safety network with the expectation that it will leverage existing telecommunications infrastructure and assets where possible and consider opportunities for public-private partnerships. More than three years after its inception, it is nearing the release of the first Requests for Proposals that will launch the actual network building stage. Once in place, it’s envisioned the network would finance itself through the fees its various users — public safety authorities in states and municipalities throughout the country — pay.
In Canada, it’s likewise expected that the new system will employ LTE 4G technology, which is 10 times faster than the highest speed technologies of just a few years ago, and procure commercial sector expertise. For now, though, few details are available.
“The $3 million (budget allotment) is to investigate what it’s going to take to build the system,” observes Demitrius Marshall, vice president, technology and professional services, with the telecom infrastructure consulting firm, RYCOM TPM. “That will get the ball rolling, but I don’t think anyone knows where the money is going to come from beyond that.”
By comparison, he points to estimates circulated in 2013 that it would cost telecom provider Verizon approximately $3 billion to develop mobile phone service infrastructure for a new network in Canada. (An investment Verizon subsequently opted not to make.)
The economics of connecting a sparse population dispersed over vast distances continues to frustrate the goal for nationwide rural broadband access, and would no doubt present the same challenge for a public safety network. In urban areas, emergency responders often have agreements with commercial cellular service providers to shut non-emergency calls out of the system during a crisis, but the steady growth in wireless devices creates mounting pressures.
“Now we even have fridges that are connected to the internet. Consumer use of broadband is high,” Marshall says. “At some point, you do have to separate out public safety and give it sole-purpose access.”
Despite the preferred properties of the 700 MHz band, more transmission towers will be required to support LTE.
“LTE will provide greater broadband capacity at speeds that will allow the streaming of high-definition video and data to significantly help public safety personnel during an emergency, but it requires a denser array of infrastructure to be able to support that,” explains Mike Collado, vice president, marketing, with SOLiD Corp., a manufacturer of DAS for commercial and public safety applications for buildings and campuses. “The signals used for current public safety LMRs cover more area and better propagate inside buildings. In contrast, LTE requires that you move towers closer to the areas they serve.”
Random dead zones where radiofrequencies cannot penetrate also play havoc with in-building wireless coverage. Upgrades to the distributed antenna systems (DAS) that currently enable service from multiple commercial cellular providers could be required to fulfill public safety specifications.
“You can build a great public safety broadband network outside, but if it doesn’t work inside the building where a majority of emergency incidents occur, it misses the mark,” Collado says.
Many commercial building owners are already investing in DAS upgrades simply to serve tenants’ needs and compete in the market, but, in Canada, an added public safety component is still likely years in the future.
“They are going to have to get buy-in from landlords,” Marshall concurs. “If they have to add infrastructure, they are going to need space.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.