Interview article

James Arden Barnett

Broadband Shoulders
EDWARD R. MYERS  |  Mar 15, 2011

An interview with Rear Admiral (Ret) James Arden Barnett, Chief, Federal Communications Commission,U.S. Bureau of Public Safety and Homeland Security,discussing the 700MHz bandwidth situation in the USA.

For first responders in North America, the capacity for full situational awareness for all public safety practitioners is indeed the holy grail. Technology holds the promise of bringing such total interoperative capability to police, fire, ambulance and other public safety responders.

The planning, development and governance of a nationwide mobile broadband network in the 700 MHz spectrum for ­public safety is being considered by regulators in both USA and Canada. In the U.S., coordination of the technical requirements to accommodate the needs of first and ­second responders within this communications spectrum has been the responsibility of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, led by James Arden Barnett, Jr., a retired Rear-Admiral of the U.S. Navy. Admiral Barnett had just finished a round of consultations with his Interoperability Forum of experts from government, industry, and responders in Washington before speaking with FrontLine about his views on the development of a nationwide inter­operable public safety mobile broadband network. Kevin Wennekes, Research VP at Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, also took part in the discussion.

Admiral Barnett described his mandate over the 700 MHz spectrum in the following way: “Our purpose is to have a network that will put all of the information that the police, fire, and emergency medical worker needs, in their hands when they need it. That’s what broadband really offers. The FCC did an analysis and found the current allocation of 10 MHz, that has been allocated to public safety from Congress already, is sufficient for the use of the responders today.” The real question, which Congress will have to consider, is the expense. “In essence, if you get a network of 70 million commercial users in the D block portion, that would support the economies of scale that would benefit the public safety side. For devices alone, [prices of] commercially manufactured devices would come down, from what is currently $5,000 per device, to something like $500 per device.”

The allocation of spectrum is now before the U.S. Congress, and Industry Canada is making recommendations for the allocations in Canada. For the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, the “key focus is to ensure that the network is both nationwide and interoperable. An Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC) was established in the spring of 2010 “to set out the technical framework to ensure interoperability from day one. In furtherance of that, we established a Technical Advisory Committee of public safety users. Using Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology as a technical baseline is a first step in interoperability. We are actively soliciting more input into interoperability and on a Notice of Proposed Rule Change that was issued on January 25th.”

The FCC envisions a partnership with the commercial sector – with incentives to keep prices down. Part of the Bureau’s plan includes ensuring that public safety has a dedicated network so the general public cannot unintentionally disrupt or impede critical communications.

Economic Realities
"If we can catch the 4 G build out, we can in essence have the public safety agencies choose whatever carrier they would like to help with their network, then we can really bring these prices down."

The numbers are high. “It will take about $6.5 Billion to build out the network across the nation to make sure that you [can reach] the most rural areas. We would like to see 99% population coverage and that goes into some pretty rural areas. We also think some $8 to $10 Billion needs to go to the public safety agencies to help them operate. We know that LTE is not going to accommodate voice communications – especially mission critical voice communications – for several years. These public safety agencies will need to operate a separate, narrow band voice system as they bring the broadband system into being.”

The business model that will best prepare the public safety network for user capability and cost effectiveness is one that combines user features plus network owner financial incentives. “An additional 10 MHz (the D Block), will change the financial equation,” Admiral Barnett reiterates.

The Human Factor
Returning to the FCC mandate, interoperability is a key goal for the new public safety network. However, as Admiral ­Barnett says; “interoperability is not a ­naturally occurring state. We have made it our top priority.” Making sure it is both nationwide and interoperable is critical. “What we need to do at the FCC,” he says, “is continue to build the technical framework and make sure we [advance] the ­standards so they can support voice.”

The overall issue of interoperability is a complex one that involves many moving components. Much of it involves human interactions that do not impact the FCC. “Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are something that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice must deal with,” says the Admiral. “The baseline for us is the technical framework for the communications network and that is going to be our highest priority for the foreseeable future.”

Cross jurisdiction and multi-level cooperation is a big part of any equation for success. “We see a need for the FCC, DHS and DOJ to work together now, and that in fact is what’s happening. We coordinate very closely with them to see that it is a team effort. We are also in constant communication with the public safety community to make sure that we understand the requirements. We don’t always agree but, in this network proposal, we have seen [overall] agreement on what’s required. Quite frankly, last year people were telling me I was crazy to propose something that would cost billions of dollars with this kind of economy. This year, because of the strength of the data behind our proposal, Congress is considering several bills […] for the network. There is a real chance for this network to become a reality.”

Admiral Barnett is committed to making sure that people understand the needs of frontline responders as the key to designing the user parts of the network. He stresses that the role of the FCC is to make sure that the network gets established, the features can then be incorporated into it. From the outset, all the players must have the same vision in mind. For the FCC PS/HS Bureau, that means “knowing that First responders have access to critical data during an emergency, which is key to ensuring that we save lives. The interoperability piece cannot be overemphasized.”

Admiral Barnett looks at the vision through the eyes of a firefighter. “Imagine a fire alarm goes out and a firefighter is on the way to a high rise building. On the way he downloads the blueprints which can immediately show where the entry points are, where the hazardous materials are located, so they can rescue people and stay safe – that real-time capability is so important.”

Cross Border Solutions
Interoperability and cooperation needs to progress across the country and across national borders as well. Admiral Barnett comments on the presence of Canadian officials and experts at many of the major public safety meetings held in the USA. Key issues are similar on both sides of the border. Barnett agrees. “In terms of interoperability across borders, I am sure there will be opportunities for us to continue to work together. I know that Canada is looking at frequency issues as well, and we are looking forward to more dialogue. I am sure there are important synergies to be gained by our two countries working together.”

As to the overall sustaining business model for the nationwide public safety broadband network, Admiral Barnett believes, “a lot is yet to be decided, but we see that this spectrum will be held by a private organization that serves public safety interests to ensure that the network is built out. There may be some advantages to national RFPs, as there may be some efficiencies that can be achieved there, but there will still be an interplay with the state and local users.”

Useful input was gleaned from the recent Interoperability Forum. Yet questions remain, and the answers will bring network requirements into focus. What components are critical to an effective nationwide architecture? What are the specific performance requirements? Will they meet enough of the public safety needs? All these and other inputs can be addressed in the RFPs, planning and governance of the network.

“In terms of procurement and international procurement specifically,” says Chief Barnett, “we always look for innovative solutions wherever we can find them, especially those coming from our friends to the north. The FCC doesn’t get into the procurement process, but we do like to spur innovation. We believe that several billion dollars, to actually get the network and technology out there, will cause an explosion of innovation like what happened around smart phones and applications that have come to the populace generally. I predict this phenomenon will also be repeated around public safety.”

Ed Myers is the Editor of FrontLine Security.
© FrontLine Security 2011