Two Awful Anniversaries Point to the Need for Robust First-Responder Networks

Carl Weinschenk

In most cases when terrible things happen, the impact of those events could have been mitigated if certain steps had been taken the last time something similar happened. There is an outcry to use common sense and to make those changes in anticipation of the next occurrence, which certainly is coming. And, usually, not a damn thing is done.


Emergencies of the past two decades-from the Oklahoma City bombing (today is the fifteenth anniversary) to Columbine (tomorrow is the eleventh anniversary) to 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina-have many awful things in common. One of them is that communications between first responders broke down.


If the two anniversaries are not reminder enough, the volcanic ash that has become Iceland's biggest export serves as another reminder-albeit one occurring in excruciatingly slow motion -- that despite its pretensions, mankind has little control over nature (in the case of the ash) or the crazier people among us.


But we can put a stop to that cycle and build a robust and reliable first-responder emergency communications network. Two overlapping things make this so: The National Broadband Plan puts first responders front and center, and the rollout of 4G networks enables a stable and reliable network to be created at a discount.


Computerworld provides details. The story is based on an interview with James Barnett Jr., who heads the Federal Communications Commission's public safety and homeland security bureau. He says that a $16 billion national public-safety network can be financed by charging broadband users about 50 cents a month. The parallel rollout out of 4G wireless networks would enable efficient (and therefore cheaper) collocation of equipment in towers, and the integration of the network into the D block of frequency would enable the cost of end-user gear to be reduced, the Computerworld piece says.


But that rosy picture might not be accurate. It's hard to know where to start in encapsulating this post, in which analyst Andrew Seybold excoriates the FCC's approach. Let's just say that he is not a fan. His main points are that FCC isn't dedicating enough spectrum for the long term and is using an auction strategy that is bound to fail. Writes Seybold:

The implications of this short-sighted approach are huge. The FCC is throwing away an opportunity for public safety to have 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum it sorely needs in favor of the short-term benefit of auctioning 10 MHz to a commercial bidder.

I hope Seybold is wrong. I'm sure he does as well, though he writes like a man who is pretty confident that he is right. If he is correct, political expediency is superseding something of vital importance. During the health care debate, President Obama asked when reform would happen if not now. The opportunity, once past, disappears for years.


The same is true of the creation of a robust first responder network. The FCC, the rest of the administration and everyone else with any influence have to step back and reassess. They must step beyond partisan politics to do the type of thing that all these folks were sent to Washington to do. They owe that much to the hundreds who died 15 years ago today, the kids and teachers who died 11 years ago tomorrow and all the other victims of tragedy, both man-made and natural.

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