July 7, 2009 By Corey McKenna
On July 1, the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) released guidance for public and private entities seeking a piece of the second round of funding to build out broadband networks to connect underserved and unserved populations to the Internet. The agencies are distributing $7.2 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Some public safety entities, such as public safety answering points, still use networks on dial-up connections. This is a significant limitation on personnel who must respond to emergencies and would benefit from the exchange of video, images and geo-referenced information that requires a broadband network because of the amount of data involved.
Part of the guidance includes how public safety agencies may seek funding for broadband projects that are viable, sustainable and scalable in partnership with public and private entities in the community. "It's a program whose principal intent is to provide broadband access to underserved people with a little footnote saying that they would also like to see it affect public safety," said Rick Wimberly, president of the public safety consultancy Galain Solutions. "Since it's a rather hefty grant program -- billions of dollars -- that little footnote is rather significant."
But public safety agencies seeking funding through the NTIA and RUS will have to get creative about partnering with public and private organizations if they're going to have much of a chance at expanding their access to broadband networks through these grant programs, Wimberly said. And how exactly to go about that is not spelled out.
"Generally what's happening is that collaborative efforts are already under way. But it's going to be difficult for [public safety entities] to find these collaborative efforts, because it's not primarily done with organizations that they are collaborating with," Wimberly said. "For a public safety entity to identify and start collaborating between now and then is going to be pretty tough, unless they can identify somebody who is doing that. There are, for example, educational entities that provide extensive broadband, and they would be a great collaborative partner for public safety."
While this may be a challenge for public safety organizations, it's certainly not a foreign concept. "What may be a foreign concept is for public safety to view these other entities as a possible solution to help facilitate public safety's broadband needs," he said, "because generally speaking public safety will argue that their broadband networks need to be dedicated to public safety. Others would argue that security can be built in so that public safety information is protected. Certainly they are going to have to be very diligent about making sure secure information is transmitted only over secure pipes."
However, security concerns may be just another reason to collaborate. "That's going to be an issue, but it's not an issue that's unique to public safety," Wimberly said. "Financial institutions are obviously quite concerned about their information. Universities are concerned about theirs. Businesses are concerned about the security of their information."
One major opportunity for public safety entities to see funding for broadband projects is in the "middle mile." Middle mile describes the infrastructure providing service to a central point in the community, such as a library or a police station, from which point the service would then reach end-users in their homes or patrol cars.
"In [the] middle mile you've got impact on the area, of course level of need," Wimberly said. "There are certainly network capacity issues, affordability issues and a variety of other things."
The grants will fund projects that are technology neutral. The NTIA expects to support projects that create broadband connectivity through fixed and mobile wireless solutions as