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Feature: The Re-Birth Of Block D

by Jim Corry
Vice President, Government Solutions
Mobile Satellite Ventures

In January of 2008, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) conducted an auction of 62 MHz of spectrum that was to become available upon the switch from analog to digital signal transmission by TV broadcasters. The changeover occurs in February of 2009. Of the 62 MHz, 20 MHz was apportioned in two, 10 MHz blocks. This public-private partnership will be responsible for building out 10 MHz for a nationwide, interoperable, public safety broadband network and a 10 MHz block for commercial licensing, known as the Upper D Block. As the $1.3 billion reserve price for the latter portion was not met during the 700 MHz auction in January, the FCC is likely to re-auction the spectrum by the end of this year, if possible.

Much discussion has taken place as to why the original auction was unsuccessful and what might occur in order to turn the venture around. Commentators have suggested that the failure of the Upper D Block auction was a combination of the FCC’s stringent build-out requirements, which included requiring coverage of 99.3 percent of the U.S. population within 10 years, and uncertainty regarding the terms of the public-private partnership.

For any upcoming re-auction, the FCC is looking at providing more flexibility in the build-out requirements as well as more certainty regarding the relationship between the commercial and public safety licensees.

Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) believes satellite service can play a critical role in making a public safety wireless broadband network a success. For the first round, the FCC required the D Block licensee to make available at least one model of a public safety handset with satellite capability. For this second round, it’s important to see the FCC go further and mandate that all public safety user devices be satellite-enabled, or provide the licensee flexibility in meeting coverage and other performance requirements. This is in return for offering public safety a ubiquitous, and robust, satellite component that meets certain criteria, or both.

The case for a more pervasive satellite component is a good one. It allows for more coverage, better reliability, and a higher degree of interoperability, all at a far lower cost than the build-out contemplated in the previous public-private partnership plan. Throughout a significant part of the build-out process, and even following it, significant portions of the geography of the U.S. will be without coverage. Similarly, without satellite back up, the reliability of the network when the terrestrial infrastructure is not available is non-existent.

The most efficient means to promote the goal of a nationwide, interoperable, public safety, broadband network is to make satellite services an integral part of that network. Technological advances will soon permit satellite capability to be added to millions of public safety user devices at a manufacturer cost of no more than a few dollars, perhaps $5 or less. That’s a small price for enormous additional value, and it’s a tiny fraction of the cost of terrestrial build-out and operations in remote areas.

During the 700 MHz proceeding, the FCC imposed a satellite component requirement on the D Block licensee. This was required because experience has shown that the United States needs to deploy and operate a nationwide, interoperable, wireless public safety communications network. The licensing of the 700 MHz D block provides an excellent opportunity to develop such a network, and ensures it is implemented in a manner that best serves the emergency response community.

During many recent emergency situations, it has become apparent that the terrestrial communications’ infrastructure is insufficient to withstand natural and man-made disasters. For example, according to a recently published industry report from CostQuest Research, more than 40 percent of U.S. roadways lack 3G (third generation) mobile phone coverage. This is despite the advanced stages of cellular network construction and coverage.

In many areas of the United States, basic communications, much less advanced IP communications simply are not available. This means communications’ systems sometimes are not accessible when and where they are most needed. Satellite services are offered almost everywhere and are essentially immune from threats that disrupt terrestrial communications. Incorporating satellite capability into every public safety device is the only way to provide full assurance that links to the interoperable public safety network are available to public safety officials. Plus, that assurance includes making certain officials have access to the network everywhere at any time, with devices and applications they already know how to use.

The FCC recognized the vital importance of satellite communications and the critical role satellites serve in ensuring members of the public safety community are able to effectively communicate.

It’s important to understand the added value of including the satellite component as part of the re-auction requirement as the public safety network needs to be available everywhere. Perhaps more importantly, the network must be designed to be available during disaster situations. However, there is no public funding available to build the network. Incorporating satellite services is the only way to achieve 100 percent coverage and extremely high reliability at a reasonable cost. Without a satellite component, the FCC will have to settle for too little coverage in order to make the partnership attractive to potential D block bidders.

Satellites can be used as an effective means to increase interoperability between the federal government and the public safety community, but there is room for improvement in increasing interoperability. Today, many key federal government agencies with national security and emergency response functions rely on satellite communications to talk amongst agencies.

This type of model would also work to ensure that the federal government and the public safety entities that rely on the 700 MHz band nationwide public safety network are able to communicate in times of emergency, even when the terrestrial wireless infrastructure is not available. If satellite capability is built into every public safety device, every public safety user can be assured of getting a link to the interoperable network anywhere, anytime, using the device they use every day.

Incentives that could be considered for potential licensee bidders begin with requirements that should include extending the build-out period, and reducing the hardening requirement, particularly in rural areas, if the D Block licensee offers public safety a ubiquitous and robust satellite component that meets certain criteria. By substituting satellite service for terrestrial service in less densely populated areas, the operator’s costs will be substantially reduced—by possibly billions of dollars by managing the needs for thousands of cell sites—without compromising the availability to public safety agencies of a reliable, interoperable network that is available nationwide.

By complying with these requirements, it would give the licensee the flexibility it needs to build out the national public safety network. It would ensure the network’s ubiquity and interoperability, and it will give the emergency response community the communication tools it so desperately needs to efficiently respond to emergencies and protect the public.

The American public benefits from the unique availability and reliability of Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) networks that provide an effective, high value service to public safety users and consumers. In fact, public safety agencies, the national security community, and the defense community, are the heaviest users of MSS services today.

Making MSS services available and accessible to more agencies and consumers through mandatory inclusion in terrestrial communications devices encourages improved interoperability, greater geographic coverage, and communications’ reliability independent of the condition of the terrestrial infrastructure. MSS provides pervasive, disaster-proof communications to public safety responders and consumers to essentially 100 percent of the U.S.

To further protect the public and respond to emergencies, the next generation hybrid satellite-terrestrial networks will prove invaluable. As an example, the one being constructed by Mobile Satellite Ventures, which means that, for the first time, the public safety community will be able to seamlessly and transparently roam between cellular and satellite networks on a handheld device (cell phones, PDA, laptops, GPS devices, and such) virtually anywhere throughout North America These next-generation networks will offer the public safety community the ability to allocate more capacity almost instantly to an area where terrestrial infrastructure is saturated, out of service, or destroyed altogether. Terrestrial facilities, even when equipped with backup power, are far more limited in their ability to re-allocate capacity to respond to local demand and cannot reallocate capacity across large distances at all.

Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) is involving itself in the auction process and the company has filed its official comments recommending the FCC require every public safety device be satellite-enabled, and provide the D Block licensee flexibility in meeting license requirements, such as build-out and hardening. This is in return for offering public safety a ubiquitous and robust satellite component that meets certain criteria. This requirement would ensure that emergency responders truly have a reliable, interoperable, and ubiquitous network to rely upon, no matter where in the country they may be.

With satellite connectivity incorporated into every device, an additional element of the MSV proposal encourages the FCC to allow the ultimate winner greater flexibility in meeting certain license requirements, such as the facilities hardening mandate. MSV is also extremely interested in working with the eventual winner of the auction to help meet the satellite communication requirement.

About the author
In his capacity as Vice President, Government Solutions, Mr. Corry leads MSV’s federal, state and local government sales and marketing initiatives. He is a 22-year veteran of the United States Secret Service, where from 1976 to 1998, he held various positions of increasing responsibility including leading various technical teams and protecting senior U.S. leaders including the President and Vice President. In 2007, Mr. Corry served on the Joint Advisory Committee on Communications Capabilities of Emergency Medical and Public Health Care Facilities. Established by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the committee assessed the capabilities and communications needs of medical and public health care facilities across the nation and submitted its report to the U.S. Congress. Mr. Corry is currently the 2008 Vice-Chair of the National Coordinating Center for Telecommunications’ Information Sharing and Analysis Center (NCC-ISAC) within the National Communications System of the Department of Homeland Security.

On June 10, 2008, a major storm swept through the mountains of Western Maryland, wiping out all cellular communications and power. With damaged homes, mangled power lines, and trees down across the roads, fire, police, and EMS responders were without communications options. Fortunately, in Allegany County, satellite communications allowed responders to stay connected with one another, even when away from their 911 centers. “Being a small, remote Appalachian county, without satellite communications our emergency responders would not have been able to respond to the public needs in an efficient and timely manner,” said Richard DeVore, chief of the Emergency Management Division for the Allegany County, Maryland Department of Public Safety. “With MSV’s MSAT G2 and push-to-talk services, we were able to stay in touch with emergency responders in the field, representing a major step forward in this region’s communications interoperability and helping us accomplish our mission of emergency response.”