Moving too slow on public safety communications

I recall that years ago, I was getting trained in systems engineering, learning how to define requirements. The leader of the training session said that most people define their requirements in terms of a solution that they already have in mind. It is a lot harder to get people to think in terms of their actual requirements.

As an example, he said that people go into a hardware store saying that they need screws, when that is actually just one possible solution for their problem: putting two pieces of wood together. There are lots of ways to put two pieces of wood together: glue, nails, screws, dovetail joints, weird Ikea cam-lock screws and dowels, etc. By defining requirements too narrowly, such as defining requirements only in terms of familiar solutions, people may be needlessly constraining the possible solutions.

That brings me to Canada’s Public Safety Broadband Network.

Public safety organizations in Canada don’t have communications systems that inter-operate. As a result, during emergencies, communications capabilities can interfere with inter-agency coordination as we have unfortunately witnessed.

Three years ago, Industry Canada reserved 20 MHz of the 700 MHz band for the development of a Public Safety Broadband Network. The first 10 MHz was allocated in February 2012:

A public safety broadband network in the 700 MHz band could facilitate a coordinated response among various Canadian public safety agencies when responding to emergency situations. In addition, harmonizing the use of the PSBB block with the United States would enable economies of scale for equipment and allow for cross-border interoperability between public safety agencies in the United States and Canada. Furthermore, the majority of the Canadian stakeholders supported designating the PSBB block for public safety broadband use. Therefore, Industry Canada has decided to designate the bands 763-768 MHz and 793-798 MHz (PSBB block) for public safety broadband use.

The Federal Budget last night signalled that the government intends to designate the remaining 10 MHz (the 758-763 MHz and 788-793 MHz bands) in the D block for Public Safety, to provide a total of 20MHz of prime 700 MHz spectrum. To put the value of the Public Safety bands in perspective, in the auction, 68 MHz of spectrum raised more than $5.3B.

This is all very good news. We have a multi-billion dollar allocation of spectrum for Public Safety. But frankly, spectrum doesn’t do anything to get agencies communicating with each other. Indeed, on its own, without substantial capital reserves, spectrum is worthless. It takes billions of real dollars to build a national network. Last year, it was reported that Quebecor had spent $800M just building in the province of Quebec. In 2013, the Financial Post reported that Moody’s had estimated that Verizon would need to spend $3B to build a network in Canada.

When the commercial carriers acquired 700 MHz spectrum in February 2014, it didn’t take long for them to start making use of their valuable new asset: two months later, Rogers announced that customers were already able to use it.

Where do we stand with the Public Safety band? More than 3 years after the first 10 MHz was allocated, last night’s budget announced that $3M – that is million, not billion – will be allocated over two years, beginning in 2016: “to take initial steps to establish the network.”

No funding for this current budget year. Just a promise that, more than 4 years after the spectrum was first allocated, the government will provide funds to take initial steps.

Industry Canada has allocated spectrum that will continue to sit idle for the foreseeable future, given that two years worth of “initial steps” funding won’t begin until the 2016-2017 budget year.

The Public Safety community needs improved, secure, robust inter-agency communications with broadband capabilities. No question about that.

In an internet era, it seems strange to have public safety communications improvements moving at such a glacial speed. Our first responders deserve better tools, serious funding – and a systems engineering approach to solving the delivery of inter-operable communications.

1 thought on “Moving too slow on public safety communications”

  1. You may want to also consider the US progress on deploying the same spectrum. FirstNet is just starting the RFP and has not yet flushed out a full concept of their network plans. I would suggest we are best to closely follow the US lead (and learnings) to get the best value for taxpayers dollars.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top