Avoiding Another Generation of Lost Interoperability

Don Tennant

If the National Broadband Plan being developed by the Federal Communications Commission isn't on your radar screen, you're hardly alone. But a lot is at stake in getting this thing right, and we need to start paying attention to it or risk squandering a once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically improve our public safety and security.


The stakes were presented in convincing fashion earlier this month by Rear Admiral James Barnett, Chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. Barnett's presentation at the University of Colorado Law School's Silicon Flatirons Center in Boulder was made available on NextGenWeb.org, and it focused on what may be the most critical facet of the National Broadband Plan: the creation of a Public Safety Broadband Network. The idea is to finally have a system in place that will provide police and fire departments and other first responders with a nationwide, fully interoperable communications network.


Barnett did a lot to demonstrate his credibility by speaking candidly about how the FCC has blown it in the past. He noted, for example, that since the proposed Public Safety Broadband Network would be IP-based, it potentially would be vulnerable to a cyberattack. "The FCC, in some ways, has been slow to come to the table" in the area of cybersecurity, Barnett acknowledged, but he said his bureau is working to change that. "We'll open up public safety communications to cyber terrorists if we don't watch out," he said. "It has to be developed in a very carefully thought-out way to make sure we're not opening ourselves to further problems."


Particularly striking was the candor Barnett showed in discussing another facet of the National Broadband Plan: modernizing the Emergency Alert System (EAS), the successor to the Emergency Broadcast System that was created in 1963 as a means for the President to notify everyone in the country of an imminent danger. Check this out:


"When I came into office as the Chief [in July 2009], I was flabbergasted to hear that the national aspect of the EAS-the ability for the President to inform you via broadcast, cable or some other way that you're in danger-has never been used. Not through the entire Cold War, 9/11 never been used. And it's never been tested. Never been tested! They're testing pieces of it here and there, but as a national system it's never been tested. There was one time when it was inadvertently activated, and it failed."


Thankfully, a test is finally in the works. Barrett said there will be a test of the EAS in Alaska on Jan.6 that officials will analyze in preparation for a nationwide test to be conducted next summer.


Aside from being a straight shooter, Barrett comes across as being eminently sensible. He's advocating a public/private partnership approach to developing the Public Safety Broadband Network, and he's been brilliant in pointing to the failure of the P25 standard for narrowband communications interoperability -- which dates back to 1988 and still hasn't yielded full interoperability -- as a warning of what will happen if we mess up the broadband plan. His conclusion:


"This is not inevitable. Our past experience would show us that it won't happen unless we put an awfully large amount of concentration and work into making sure that it happens. Broadband, if we catch it at the beginning, may offer the greatest opportunity for interoperability that we'll have for one or two generations. The Public Safety Broadband Network is a 10- to 15-year process. The most important year of that is the first one. [The government's interoperability plan] needs to precede the building of the network. If that's not done, the other nine to 14 years don't matter, because you've missed it."


In a post last week, "A Missed Opportunity to Aid Broadband Adoption," I wrote about the importance of universal broadband Internet connectivity, another facet of the National Broadband Plan. As essential as it is to avoid missed opportunities in that arena, missing an opportunity to provide our public safety agencies with the interoperability they need to save lives and better protect our security would be far more tragic.

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