A Brief History of Public Safety Communications
The first major federal legislation concerning wireless communications, the Radio Act of 1912, became law in response to a public safety issue - the sinking of the Titanic. Beginning with the Radio Act of 1927 and continuing with the Communications Act of 1934, the federal government began defining the public airwaves, or radio spectrum, as a resource that must be used in the public interest and, more specifically, "for the purpose of the national defense" and "for the purpose of promoting safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communication."
Across the United States, local, county, state and regional public safety organizations built, maintained and updated their individual communications facilities. That approach has worked for decades and these networks likely will remain the home for mission-critical voice communications for some time. However, several increasingly important factors prompted the public safety community and the FCC to consider alternative ways of delivering vital public safety communications.
First, just as digital quickly is replacing analog in much of the wireless environment, the extraordinary opportunities presented by broadband increasingly will be demanded by public safety officials who, each day, are being asked to do more, often with fewer resources. The public safety community, like the rest of the wireless world, indeed the rest of American society, must have access to affordable, ubiquitous broadband service. Broadband capabilities will complement, not replace, narrowband voice and will provide the nation's emergency responders with the tools needed to meet their responsibilities in the decades to come.
Second, the need for interoperability within and between jurisdictions has never been greater. Public safety at the local, county, state and regional levels has recognized this need and responded. There are many examples of interoperability arrangements that serve the citizens of the jurisdictions involved well. But even these laudable initiatives are geographically limited. There had been no way to organize jurisdictions to inter-operate over a broader scale and no clear solution for the type of catastrophic public safety emergency that was experienced on 9-11 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Third, the difficulty in securing scarce public resources to maintain and upgrade public safety communication systems also has hampered public safety officials' ability to do the best possible job. State-of-the-art systems are extremely difficult to fund, and difficult to upgrade or replace when they no longer represent the most advanced technology. All too frequently, equipment intended for the public safety market is much more expensive than devices for the consumer marketplace because the public safety community lacks the economies of scale found in commercial networks.
However, even before horrific events focused the general public's attention on the need for improved emergency communications, both the public safety community and the federal government began to try to correct the known shortcomings in emergency communications. In 1995, the FCC, along with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), established the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC) to provide an assessment of the communications needs of public safety agencies through the year 2010. On September 11, 1996, (exactly 5 years before the terrible events of September 11, 2001), PSWAC released a report defining the current and future spectrum needs of public safety. Among its findings was that 97.5 MHz of new public safety spectrum was needed by 2010, including 25 MHz within five years.
As a result of the PSWAC report, Congress directed the FCC (in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997) to allocate no later than January 1, 1998, 24 MHz of radio spectrum between 746 and 806 MHz which would be recovered from television channels 60-69 with the implementation of digital television. On August 6, 1998, the FCC created the Public Safety National Coordinating Committee (NCC) under the authority of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). The purpose of the NCC was to recommend rules for the use of the recently reallocated 24 MHz of public safety spectrum in the 700 MHz band.
The NCC, in its final report in July 2003, recommended that half of the new spectrum (12 MHz) be designated for urgently needed public safety narrowband voice channels, and that the remaining 12 MHz be designated for wideband data channels. Since then, significant advances in technology have made broadband an even better choice for data capability.
Uncertainty regarding when the broadcasters would actually relinquish their analog stations so that this new public safety spectrum would become available was greatly reduced on February 8, 2006. On that date, President Bush signed a law requiring TV broadcasters to vacate channels 52-69 no later than February 17, 2009. At approximately that same time, an important national discussion began on the need to create a nationwide public safety broadband network on a portion of these airwaves. Later that year, on December 20, 2006, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that considered for the first time a nationwide public safety broadband network built pursuant to a public safety-commercial partnership, with the public safety spectrum license held by a single, broadly representative entity and stated:
"We believe that the time may have come for a significant departure from the typical public safety allocation model the Commission has used in the past."
"While this [model] has had significant benefits for public safety users, in terms of permitting them to deploy voice and narrowband facilities for their needs, the system has also resulted in uneven build-out across the country in different bands, balkanization of spectrum between large numbers of incompatible systems, and interoperability difficulties if not inabilities."
On April 25, 2007, the FCC issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking , proposing the creation of just such a nationwide broadband public safety licensee and the creation of a nationwide public safety network built through a public safety-commercial partnership with the commercial operator securing its license through a spectrum auction.
The PSST was created on June 6, 2007 for the express purpose of seeking to become that national public safety licensee. The PSST held its first meeting on June 19, 2007.
On July 31, 2007, the FCC adopted a Report & Order approving the issuance of a single nationwide license for 10 MHz of 700 MHz public safety spectrum re-designated for broadband use and the creation of a public safety-commercial partnership to deploy a nationwide public safety-grade broadband network. On August 10, 2007, the text for the Report & Order was released specifying the requirements for the Public Safety Broadband Licensee (PSBL) and its commercial partner. The Report & Order was published in the Federal Register on August 24, 2007.
In October 2007, the Board of Directors of the PSST reconstituted itself following new requirements established by the FCC. The PSST submitted its application for the PSBL license on October 10, 2007 and was selected by the FCC to be the PSBL on November 19, 2007. With this FCC action, the PSST became the licensee for public safety spectrum that will become part of a single, shared nationwide wireless broadband network by means of a shared public safety/commercial partnership. The PSST represents the interests of the public safety community in regard to meeting public safety's mission-critical communications needs on this network.