Early support for using broadband for public safety came from the National Broadband Plan, which was released by the FCC in March 2010. The National Broadband plan proposed spending up to $11 billion on a national network, and called for commercial auction of portions of wireless spectrum to be made available to commercial entities - another one of President Obama's broadband priorities. The Obama administration is committed to freeing 500 MHz of spectrum, and has already identified 115 MHz last year. The funds necessary to build a national public safety network will come from the auction of the newly discovered spectrum. The Obama national broadband public safety proposal also includes support for developing standards to build a network infrastructure using LTE technology.
It isn’t difficult to understand how public safety fell so far behind the innovation curve. Some have said that a teenager with a smartphone can do more than the average police officer or firefighter with a radio can in the field. Application developers and device manufacturers are driven to develop better and more powerful applications because of the sheer number of user devices in production. By comparison, the public safety user population is much smaller, driving costs of individual devices higher, and limiting application development.
There was divisive but meaningful debate about many challenges and issues regarding building a broadband public safety network – dedicated use of the “D Block” for public safety, governance of the network, end user devices, and probably most important – funding. That last challenge proved insurmountable for many areas around the country. To put it simply, the investment to transition to a broadband public safety network from the current “Land/Mobile Radio (LMR)” systems currently in place would require money to maintain the current LMR system, while also investing in the network infrastructure to build a 4G/LTE network.
There have been a number of bills introduced in Congress which provide resolution to all of the issues listed above. The Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011 introduced by Senators McCain and Lieberman direct the FCC to re-allocate the D-Block to public safety and include funding for the construction and operation of the network. Senator Jay Rockefeller also introduced legislation entitled “The Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2011” (S.28), which has garnered the support of many public safety organizations. Although there was momentum to get the Rockefeller passed by the tenth anniversary of 9/11 the legislation never went to a vote, most likely due to protracted debates about the federal debt ceiling and the economy.
In September, 2011 the President introduced similar legislation in the “American Jobs Act of 2011,” which included many of the components contained in Senate Bill 911, the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act. This legislative package also contained policy and funding for building a broadband public safety network. According to the White House at the time the bill was introduced, "The plan follows the model in the bipartisan legislation from Senators Rockefeller and Hutchison in including an investment to develop and deploy a nationwide, interoperable wireless network for public safety. The plan included reallocating the D Block for public safety (costing $3 billion) and $7 billion to support the deployment of this network and technological development to tailor the network to meet public safety requirements." The political climate in Washington doomed that bill and placed the future of the national broadband public safety network in question – leaving many jurisdictions without a clear strategy to forge ahead with network builds.
To date, 20 jurisdictions hold waivers to build public safety networks in the 700 MHz band of spectrum, five have received NTIA grants to build a network, and the FCC is considering granting additional waivers to other jurisdictions.