Public safety in the public networks

In April, I expressed concern about the glacial pace of development of Canada’s public safety network.

Canada has allocated 20 MHz of prime 700 MHz spectrum (758-768 MHz and 788-798 MHz) for “public safety broadband use”, but there is no budget allocated for this spectrum to actually be activated. Based on the prices paid in the public 700 MHz auction, we have about $2B worth of spectrum sitting unused.

Why are we building a separate public safety network instead of leveraging the power of commercial networks?

What are the public safety requirements? As described in a 2012 document:

Canadian police, fire, EMS and other emergency management professionals must have access to modern and reliable communications capabilities, including high speed data and video, to communicate with each other across agencies and jurisdictions during day-to-day operations and emergencies. Technological advances mean Canadian agencies will increasingly require access to data and video networks during emergency incidents:

  • Law enforcement agencies need access to streaming video, surveillance networks capable of identifying persons of interest through the use of video analytics, criminal records, automated license plate recognition and biometric technologies including mobile fingerprint and iris identification to prevent and respond to criminal activities;
  • Fire services need access to building blue prints, health-monitoring sensors and GPS tracking systems in order to save lives;
  • Emergency medical services need access to telemedicine, high-resolution video and patient records to reduce the time it takes to deliver medical services at the scene of an incident such as a car crash on a
  • Critical-infrastructure service providers need to coordinate their responses to restore power and telecommunications services during large-scale incidents;
  • The Government of Canada and various other federal agencies need access to data networks during large-scale incidents to coordinate federal assistance with provincial/territorial and local response and recovery operations.

Don’t the first three sound more like requirements for apps, not network requirements? And the last two sound like terms for a service level agreement.

The governance document says “A dedicated national interoperable public safety broadband network would be inherently more reliable, more robust, more functional and more resilient than current public safety communications systems.” I suspect that a public safety broadband network, developed as a virtual application within existing public broadband networks would be even more robust, more reliable, more resilient than a private, dedicated network.

More importantly, the public networks are already built, with hundreds of megahertz of spectrum capacity. Public Safety’s own studies show “the amount of bandwidth required to satisfy the needs of public safety is greater than 20MHz in the near-to-mid-term, and likely to also exceed 20MHz in the long term, despite advances in technology.”

Public networks have steady, continuous, investments being made to upgrade and evolve their capacity. There are hundreds of compatible handsets – including rugged military grade devices.

Is there a more creative solution – a more robust solution – possible by focusing on the applications, while embedding the network requirements within a multi-carrier solution? Wouldn’t this provide instantly available global interoperability with vastly more capacity than we could ever expect to see built by our chronically underfunded public safety agencies?

As I noted in April, it took just two months for Canada’s commercial carriers to start using their 700 MHz spectrum; years later, there is still no funding for public safety to start to think about activating its spectrum.

I wrote in April “The Public Safety community needs improved, secure, robust inter-agency communications with broadband capabilities. No question about that.” A virtual network may be able to deliver all of these requirements better, faster and at a lower cost.

If Public Safety’s studies are saying that it already knows that 20 MHz isn’t enough spectrum, maybe it needs to explore more creative virtual network solutions.

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