The typically platform-neutral agency has chosen the 4G wireless standard for an interoperable first-responder network, in the works since 9/11.
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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has chosen long-term evolution (LTE) as the communications infrastructure standard for a public safety network it's been planning for almost 10 years.
All five FCC commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to adopt the 4G wireless standard as the backbone for its communications network for first responders, something the agency has aimed to build since not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
Emergency response teams such as firefighters and policemen had a difficult time communicating with each other on 9/11 because their radio equipment used different spectrum bands. This lack of interoperability prompted officials to do something to remedy the problem, but a first attempt at building a common wireless network for first responders several years ago never got off the ground.
The FCC usually doesn't choose technology standards, but has made an exception in this case because interoperability is key to the network that will be created, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said in his statement about the decision. "While selecting a common technology platform is the exception and not the rule at the FCC, in order to ensure nationwide interoperability for public safety communications there's widespread agreement that a common air interface is desirable and necessary to enable nationwide interoperability," he said.
The decision should also ensure that the independent wireless networks that various safety agencies, impatient with FCC foot-dragging, have started to develop will be able to communicate once they're up and running.
FCC commissioner Michael Copps criticized his agency for taking so long to create a public safety communications network after 9/11, in his statement on the decision to adopt LTE. "More should have been done immediately after 9/11 to address the needs of public safety," he said. "Quite frankly, it is inexcusable that we still do not have a nationwide interoperable public safety network."
Deciding on a communications standard is just the first step on the road to actually building the network, and the FCC has plenty of work ahead before it's functional. The agency is currently seeking public comment on, among other things, the architectural vision of the network; interconnectivity between networks; network robustness and resiliency; interference coordination and protection; and security and encryption, it said.
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