After the investment of significant resources including billions of dollars in federal grants and approximately 100 megahertz of radio frequency spectrum, the current land mobile radio or LMR systems in use by public safety provide reliable “mission critical” voice capabilities. For public safety, mission critical voice communications must meet a high standard for reliability, redundancy, capacity, and flexibility. Although these LMR systems provide some data services, such as text and images, their ability to transmit data is limited by the channels on which they operate. According to the Department of Homeland Security, interoperability among LMR systems has improved due to its efforts, but full interoperability of LMR systems remains a distant goal.

Multiple federal entities are involved with planning a public safety broadband network and while such a network would likely enhance interoperability and increase data transfer rates, it would not support mission critical voice capabilities for years to come, perhaps even 10 years or more. A broadband network could enable emergency responders to access video and data applications that improve incident response. Yet because the technology standard for the proposed broadband network does not support mission critical voice capabilities, first responders will continue to rely on their current LMR systems for the foreseeable future. Thus, a broadband network would supplement, rather than replace, current public safety communication systems.

There are several challenges to implementing a public safety broadband network, including ensuring the network’s interoperability, reliability, and security; obtaining adequate funds to build and maintain it; and creating a governance structure. For example, to avoid a major shortcoming of the LMR systems, it is essential that a public safety broadband network be interoperable across jurisdictions and devices by following five key elements to interoperable networks: governance, standard operating procedures, technology, training, and usage. With respect to creating a governance structure, pending legislation, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, among other things, establishes a new entity, the First Responder Network Authority, with responsibility for ensuring the establishment of a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network.

The price of handheld LMR devices is high, often thousands of dollars, in part because market competition is limited and manufacturing costs are high. Further, GAO found that public safety agencies cannot exert buying power in relationship to device manufacturers, which may result in the agencies overpaying for LMR devices. In particular, because public safety agencies contract for LMR devices independently from one another, they are not in a strong position to negotiate lower prices and forego the quantity discounts that accompany larger orders. For similar situations, GAO has recommended joint procurement as a cost saving measure because it allows agencies requiring similar products to combine their purchase power and lower their procurement costs. Given that DHS has experience in emergency communications and relationships with public safety agencies, it is well-suited to facilitate joint procurement of handheld LMR devices.

At a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly remarked that a 16 year old with a smartphone has more advanced communications capability than a police officer or deputy carrying a radio. The failings of public safety communications systems include both interoperability, with the limitations of current systems becoming tragically apparent on 9/11 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and operability. with the cost-effectiveness and performance of traditional public safety devices trailing well behind those provided by modern commercial cellular operator.