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Keynote Address of
Commissioner Gloria Tristani
Federal Communications Commission
Before the
Association of Public Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO)
August 14, 2000
Boston, Massachusetts

(As prepared for delivery)

Thank you for that warm welcome.

It’s hard to believe that 2 years have passed since I joined you at the APCO annual conference in New Mexico. I had a wonderful time – and not only because it was hosted in my hometown of Albuquerque! APCO is an extraordinary organization. You are dedicated to helping your membership better serve and protect the public. You are equally committed to aiding those of us in Washington responsible for developing policies to promote public safety communications. In fulfilling these two roles, you serve as our link to the public safety community. And so it is a pleasure and honor to join you once again.

Being in Boston, I have to put our work here in historical context. Public safety communication in this city dates back to Paul Revere and the famous warning – "one if by land, two if by sea." With that one signal flashing from the Old North Church, the story goes, our nation’s birth was sprung to action. It’s a good thing the British didn’t have a monopoly on lantern communications!

But back in 1934, when Congress created the Federal Communications Commission, it directed the new agency to promote the safety of life and property through wireline and radio communications. The following year, APCO held its first annual convention in St. Louis. Among the participants that first year was Mr. E.K. Jett, a representative of the FCC. Mr. Jett led a discussion on improving inter-city communications, which confirms that inter-agency coordination was a top priority even back then. I am pleased that APCO and the FCC continue in this tradition, striving to meet the communications needs of public safety agencies and the public you serve.

The safety of life and property often clings to a thin thread – the thread of a consistent, accurate and reliable communications system. For public safety workers who risk their lives every day, their radios are a lifeline connection. They are the link for mission-critical communications – for life-saving information, for back-up, and for a coordinated response to crises. And for citizens in danger, a 911 call from a wireless phone may be the difference between isolation and help-on-the-way.

There is nothing that so clearly embodies the public interest as public safety. So I am here to commend you and your colleagues and to celebrate the work that you do each and every day.

Together we face challenges to crafting policies and developing communications systems that can fulfill the public safety mission. Interoperability, sufficient spectrum, interference-free communications, and resources for state-of-the-art technology are just some of the pressing needs you and your colleagues confront every single day.

During the last year, the FCC has made steady progress to allow you to do your job more productively and more safely. With APCO’s help, the agency has moved forward on a number of fronts to ensure that public safety is ready for the communications challenges and opportunities of this new century.

Spectrum Issues

When I spoke to you last, we had just announced a band plan and service rules for 24 megahertz of new public safety spectrum in the 700 MHz band – spectrum that fully doubles current public safety allocations. You may recall that this is the spectrum to be recovered from TV channels 60-69 as a result of broadcaster transition to digital broadcasting.

Back in 1998, we set a channelization plan for both broadband and narrowband connections, required digital operation, and adopted a regional planning framework for administration of the 700 MHz spectrum. At that time, I expressed my firm belief that a regional planning approach is vital to ensure that public safety agencies at all levels have a voice in the administration of this spectrum. I encourage APCO members to seize this opportunity despite the substantial effort that will be required.

As many of you know, we also dedicated 2.6 megahertz, or just over 10% of the new 700 MHz spectrum, for interoperability. Natural disasters like wildfires, major accidents such as plane crashes, special events and even routine situations require a coordinated response from multiple public safety agencies. And yet, as you know too well, our public safety workers face numerous obstacles, including scattered frequencies from 30 to 800 MHz, too few channels for interoperability, and no common operation standard to name a few. Given this scenario, we established a National Coordinating Committee, the NCC, to advise the FCC on how to craft a national interoperability plan and technical standards for the 700 MHz band.

In looking at this spectrum, the FCC sought to balance the twin goals of efficient spectrum use and rapid deployment. To encourage spectrum efficiency, we carved the interoperable narrowband spectrum into 6.25 kHz channels. We did this with the expectation that the technology necessary to accommodate one voice channel in 6.25 kHz bandwidth would soon be developed. However, the NCC responded in February that a 6.25 kHz digital voice standard was perhaps 5 years away.

In my deliberations, I have always held that spectrum efficiency is an important goal, but saving lives today is a higher priority. Public safety entities need access to this spectrum now, and it is available in many areas.

And so I am pleased that in response to the NCC, the Commission proposed to adopt the Project 25 Phase I digital voice standard at this time, and to develop a "migration path" to 6.25 technology. This approach appropriately balances the need for seamless interoperable band of public safety spectrum with the goal of spectrum efficiency. I look forward to acting quickly to spur deployment in this band.

As many of you aware, however, there is uneven access to the 700 MHz spectrum across the nation. The spectrum is clear in many parts of the country, including Chicago, Washington, Miami, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, New Orleans, San Diego, and Nashville, as well as most rural areas. However, in other areas, including many areas where public safety spectrum is most needed, TV stations will only clear off during the transition from analog digital television in 2006 or beyond.

The encumbered nature of this spectrum is a matter of intense scrutiny in Washington. Last year, I supported a plan that would allow a TV station’s early transition based on several public interest factors, including whether the cleared spectrum would be available for public safety use. The agency adopted rules this summer to further encourage early voluntary band clearing of the broadcasters, despite my own misgivings. I should note that the statute does not allow for mandatory band clearing. Despite this cloud looming over use of this spectrum in some areas, the 700 MHz band offers exciting possibilities for many public safety agencies across America.

Creating a framework for public safety deployment in this band is a challenging and lengthy task, but today I am cautiously optimistic that we are on the right course, ready for meaningful progress.

So, there’s a new 24 megahertz of spectrum on the horizon. But as you know better than I, this historic allocation is not an answer to all of your needs. We will need to find additional spectrum to carry forward the public safety mission. We also need to facilitate interoperability below 512 MHz. The vast majority of state and local law enforcement and fire agencies use the high VHF band for their primary voice communications. These agencies have embedded equipment in this band and need some form of interoperability. I believe that we should act quickly to identify certain channels below 512 MHz for nationwide interoperability.

911 Issues

In addition to spectrum issues, another matter of growing importance to the public safety community is wireless 911. It goes without saying that emergencies can and do occur just about anywhere, and not necessarily where a phone line exists. With more and more Americans using wireless phones, wireless 911 has become an integral means to alert public safety agencies of an emergency. Indeed, callers made 43 million wireless 911 calls in 1999 – doubling the number of calls from 1996. That’s over 100,000 wireless 911 calls per day – more that 80 per minute – flooding into PSAPs across the country.

Many of these stories are remarkable. And your day-to-day handling of these crises is nothing short of heroic. Increasingly, however, we are hearing that the ability to identify the location of wireless callers can be a matter of life or death.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the Virginia woman who used her mobile phone to alert police that she had been abducted and locked in the trunk of her car by a carjacker. Dispatchers contacted her wireless carrier in hopes of tracking the car by identifying the wireless tower receiving her phone’s signal. The towers in that area had a three mile radius and, with the help of the wireless carrier, dispatchers alerted police of the general location. Police spotted the car and chased the carjacker down. Thankfully, the woman was unharmed.

Sadly, other stories are not as successful despite valiant efforts by public safety personnel. Last year, a Kansas woman’s car went off a highway and struck four trees. The woman had enough strength to call 911 but couldn’t tell the dispatch operator where she was located. Emergency crews searched for her by car and helicopter, but based on the cell tower sight receiving her phones signal, they focused their search 10 miles away. The dispatcher kept her on the phone for two hours but she drifted in and out of consciousness. Finally the phone went silent. She was later found by a passing truck driver and pronounced dead on the scene.

Regrettably, this tragedy and others like it could have been avoided.

Technology exists that can identify the location of wireless calls to within 100 or even 50 meters. This year, the FCC took action to spur deployment of location technology and to remove barriers to PSAP readiness.

When the Commission first adopted E911 rules back in 1996, the common understanding was that only network-based approaches would provide the location information. Since then, GPS technology has developed to allow a viable handset-based alternative. Many providers, including those in rural areas, asserted that a handset-based method could offer greater accuracy at a lower cost. As a result, we revised the rules to permit the phase-in of new or upgraded handsets with improved location technology. Beginning in 2001, network-based solutions must offer location accuracy of 100 meters for 67 percent of all wireless 911 calls; for handset-based solutions, the accuracy must be within 50 meters for 67 percent of the calls.

Over the past several months, some carriers and manufacturers have asserted that the technology isn’t ready. They’ve attacked our aggressive timeframe and at times even each other. It’s time for this cycle of blame to come to an end. Survey upon survey reflects that safety is a top reason why people sign up for wireless service. Moreover, our mandate to promote public safety demands aggressive deployment.

While some carriers already have filed for waivers, we need tangible solutions – not lax deployment. Right now we are reviewing the E911 deadlines, and while there may be some valid reasons to make minor changes, we must retain a meaningful commitment to E911. Come October, carriers will be required to declare the technology they’ll use. And next year deployment will begin.

This is the promise of wireless E911. But it will remain only a promise unless we succeed in making wireless E911 an integrated part of public safety programs. After all, location technology will be useless if PSAPs aren’t set up to handle the information. Some E911 obligations, moreover, aren’t even triggered until a PSAP requests carrier deployment.

This past fall, the FCC removed barriers impeding wireless E911 service. We affirmed the requirement that a formal mechanism be in place for PSAP cost recovery, but eliminated any mandate that carrier E911 costs be covered by a state or local cost recovery scheme. Under this arrangement, I believe PSAPs should have the tools necessary to deploy E911 information.

800 MHz Interference

On a different note, I also want to mention the work being done by APCO and others on the 800 MHz interference issue. Increasingly, the FCC has heard stories of 800 MHz public safety agencies experiencing significant interference in parts of their coverage areas. Beginning in April of this year, the FCC convened a series of meetings attended by APCO, some 800 MHz carriers and an equipment manufacturer. This group, the Public Safety Interference Task Force, has been charged with identifying the scope of the problem, the sources of interference, and workable solutions. APCO posted a questionnaire on its website and work has proceeded to find solutions to this problem. This effort has been productive thus far and I encourage APCO members to get involved in this project.

Finally, I want to reiterate the vital role that APCO plays at the FCC. You are the voice of public safety and I thank you for all your efforts. On a personal note, it has been a pleasure to work with Joe Hanna this year, who has been a tireless worker and wonderful resource. I am pleased that APCO and the FCC continue to work together, striving to meet the needs of public safety agencies and the public you serve.

And following in Mr. Jett’s footsteps from back in 1935, this afternoon Wireless Bureau Chief Tom Sugrue and several other FCC staff will discuss public safety communications policies, answer questions, and learn from you. Our message to you is loud and clear: we want to work with you to learn what we can do to allow you to do your jobs more productively, more efficiently, and more safely.