Category Archives: fcc

– Bin Laden changed Gov’t Tech

Osama bin Laden - click to see moreOsama Bin Laden’s death is a welcome event for most people, especially in the United States. Yet his life profoundly changed the direction of information technology as it is used in City, County, State and the Federal government. Indeed, my own life is vastly different than it would have been if the World Trade Center towers had not been destroyed on September 11, 2001.

The most visible effect for most Americans, of course, is our two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even there, the effect is distant from the majority of us: relatively few families have friends or relatives who serve in the military. (A notable exception – reservists and the National Guard – I have a friend in the Seattle Parks Department who has been activated three times, once each for Afghanistan, Iraq and Djibouti,and now has been notified of an upcoming fourth deployment).

Full Body ScannerOf course anyone using airports notices the “new” fedgov bureaucracy, the Transportation Security Administration and its wide variety of high and low technologies from “spread ‘em” millimeter wave body scanners to “feel ‘em up” intrusive body pat-downs.

But Bin Laden’s war on the United States changed much more in the way we live and govern our cities and counties and states.

After September 11th, the threat of terrorist attacks took a prominent place alongside earthquakes and hurricanes as a potential disaster. Now we worry about “dirty” bombs, and nuclear weapons smuggled in aboard ships and bio-attacks (remember the anthrax delivered to Congress?).Coast Guard and a Ferry In Seattle, we’ve done vulnerability analyses on likely targets such as the Space Needle, Microsoft headquarters, Boeing plants and Washington State ferries. Indeed, you can often see Coast Guard fast attack craft zooming alongside ferries. And traffic barriers and bollards protect buildings which may be targets.

Most visibly from a technology point of view, interoperable communications for first responders has taken center stage. In the World Trade Center attacks, New York City police officers in the buildings received the radioed notice to evacuate, but firefighters – operating on different radio channels – did not, and many of them died as a result. Many meetings have been held and much legislation proposed, but as of this writing – almost ten years later – we have few concrete improvements in interoperability. Notably, the Obama Administration has proposed a $12 billion grant program, financed by the sale of spectrum, to build a nationwide interoperable public safety wireless broadband network. http://www.cioupdate.com/news/article.php/3922331/Obama-Looks-to-Drive-RD-Wireless-Broadband.htm Whether Congress has the ability stop its internal bickering and actually enact legislation for this program is an open question. Nevertheless some cities and states, such as Charlotte, Harris County (Houston), Mississippi and the Los Angeles and San Francisco regions, are boldly building the first of these new, vital, networks.

Other changes include a new Fedgov Department, Homeland Security, to improve our readiness to combat terrorist threats. It’s initial steps to help us prepare for terrorist attacks include not only the TSA, but also the ill-conceived color-coded terrorism threat level (i.e. nuclear urine yellow) system. Recently, TSA and air marshal programs, fast FEMA responses, and Coast Guard interdiction of threats have allowed DHS to come into its own.

Whole grant funding programs have sprung into being as well, for example the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). UASI is funding thousands of programs to help harden vulnerable targets, equip first responders with personal protective equipment, and conduct exercises and training to improve our ability to withstand both terrorist events and disasters.

In the Seattle area, we’ve built a secure fiber network to interlink the seats of Government and Emergency operations Centers in central Puget Sound. Seattle – and many other cities and counties – have invested local funds to construct new, state-of-the-art 911 centers and emergency operations centers. Concerned about cybersecurity threats, we’ve hardened our control networks which manage the electricity and water grids. Indeed, the whole field of cybersecurity and information technology security now has new life confronting not just terrorist threats, but the very real problems created by hackers, phishers and identity thieves. With the help of homeland security dollars, we here in Seattle are building a cyber event logging system which will help correlate cyber security events across the Puget Sound Region.

Is America safer now than in 2011, especially given Bin Laden’s death? I don’t know. But I do know we are somewhat better prepared to meet disaster and terrorist acts. We have disaster preparedness plans and we exercise them. We are a more connected society with wired and wireless networks, and we are keenly aware of potential cyber security threats. We are more vigilant.

But we have a lot – a LOT – more to do. President Obama, Vice-President Biden and their Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra have shown great leadership in boldly proposing to fund a new public safety broadband wireless network. The FCC has granted waivers to 20 cities, regions and states to build these networks. Courageous leaders in Congress such as Senators Rockefeller, Hutchison, McCain and Lieberman, and Representatives Peter King and Benny Thompson, are proposing legislation to finally build the nationwide networks first responders need to meet the challenge not just of terrorist events but also the daily incidents and disasters. Even the New York Times has endorsed these efforts.

Will their leadership overcome the naysayers in Congress and elsewhere?

For the sake of the nation, for the health and safety of every one of our citizens, I hope it does.

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Filed under fcc, Fedgov, homecity security, Seattle Parks, UASI, Uncategorized

– Thanks & Turkeys 2010

Apologies to the Virgina Tech Hokies for using their LogoThis week Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier has a LOT for which to be thankful.   But I also have a few turkeys to carve.

My most significant thanks go to the phenomenal people who work in information technology in local government, especially here at the City of Seattle.    Most City and County CIOs, such as those who are the 60 members of MIX (the Metropolitan Information Exchange)  will agree with me and give thanks for their employees as well.  While some members of the public think government employees are 8 to 5 clock-watching bureaucrats, that’s decidedly NOT true of most employees, especially our technology workers.

This fact slammed home to me again this week – Seattle had a snowstorm.    Two inches.    Those of you in Chicago, Boston or Washington DC are probably laughing.  Two measly inches?  What’s the big deal?  But here in Seattle, because of the uniquenesses of our weather systems/geography and the rarity of snow in the lowlands, it was a real show-stopper.  Monday night many of my employees spent four, five or nine hours commuting home on jammed icy freeways.   I and several of my staff walked home five miles in the snowstorm (video of commuters walking across the West Bridge here).

In Seattle’s Department of Information Technology, we had staff who worked all night Monday, or slept at their workstations Monday night, or stayed in hotels downtown, or turned right around and came back to work Tuesday morning after the long commute home.    They did this because they know the work of a City government and the safety of the people of Seattle depend now, more than ever, on reliable technology:  websites, data networks, e-mail systems and much much more.   For these two hundred dedicated people working in the City of Seattle’s technology department, I give thanks.

(My colleagues elsewhere have similar stories, whether in Houston and Mobile, Alabama, who have suffered through hurricanes, or Los Angeles and Riverside who have suffered through earthquakes, or Chicago and Washington DC, with their snowstorms.)

As I attend conferences and talk to my counterparts across the country, I find similar dedication to keeping the public safe and our governments operational. As just one example, we have twenty cities and states around the nation who have authority from the FCC to build fourth generation wireless networks.  Over the past 11 months I’ve been working with officials from these twenty jurisdictions, as well as the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, the Public Safety Communications Research Program of the Department of Commerce, and Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications.   Every one of these agencies and the people involved have been working tirelessly to build a nationwide public safety network, a vision which sprung out of the September 11th World Trade Center disaster.     This year we’ve made real progress, despite a number of hurdles.  Now the first networks are under construction.   For all these dedicated government officials and technical staff, I give thanks.

I also give thanks to the many private companies who are doing extraordinary work with technology – Microsoft and Windows and Office, Google with Android and search, Apple with iPhones and iPads, IBM’s Smart Cities Challenge, and a few more who not only want to make money, but also want to use a significant part of that money make the planet a better place in which to live and work.

Finally, I give thanks for my elected officials – Mayor and City Council – and the department directors running City departments here in Seattle.     This year of the Great Recession they have faced terrible choices with budget shortfalls of $67 million in Seattle.  And precipitously falling tax revenues.  And urgent needs from the public for safety nets for our jobless citizens and the poor and homeless.   My own department’s budget was cut by over 17% and I’ve laid off over 10% of my workforce over the past two years.    These are all tough choices, and they are done in the glare of publicity with many competing demands by constituents for the ever-shrinking pot of money.  But we have a sustainable budget and services going into 2011.  Thank you to the officials who stepped up and made these tough choices.

Now on to the turkeys – at least the ones I’d like to carve and serve.

First are some of our technology vendors, a few of whom have ever increasing appetites for money.   Some of them are resorting to “compliance audits” to make sure we are paying for every last danged software license we are using.  One vendor even demanded to have access to every one of the 11,000 computers at the City of Seattle to see if their software was installed.   Others absolutely refuse to negotiate reduced pricing or flexible maintenance plans.  These few money-grubbing vendors get my “tech turkey” award.

Next there are a few of our public employee unions.   Many public employee unions here in the Seattle area realize we are in an unprecedented recession.   Those unions have willingly forgone raises which were in their contracts, understanding that few workers in the private sector get raises, and many private sector workers have lost their jobs and retirement money.   But a few public sector unions have held out for their contracted raises, which are far larger than inflation.  This, frankly, can make all city and county governments and our workers look greedy and foolish.  The public backlash was evident in our recent elections where few tax increases were passed and many revenue sources were cut.  These few unions get my turkey award as well.

My final turkey award goes to those politicians who want to whip the public into a frenzy about supposed fraud and waste in government, or think we can continue tax cuts, increase defense spending, and balance the budget all at the same time.  How do they think public schools, parks, police and fire departments, child protective services, streets or public health are funded, or how do we pay the dedicated people who provide all those services?   I’ve blogged about this at length before, and will just leave these politicians with my tea-party-turkey award.

All in all, however, at this Thanksgiving of 2010, I’ve got a lot more reasons to give thanks than to carve!

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Filed under disaster, employees, fcc, government operations

– Why Don’t Cops just use Cell Phones?

The National Plan for Public Safety - click to see more

The National Plan

Police officers and firefighters carry $5000 radios.  Local and state governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build public safety radio networks.  Yet, today, cell phone networks seem to be everywhere, most people carry a mobile phone and many of us think paying $199 for an iPhone is expensive.  

Why can’t cops and firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMT) use cell phones like everyone else?   A Washington State legislator from Seattle recently public argued for this approach in his blog.  And, at first, this appears to be a simple way for governments to save a lot of taxpayer dollars.

Here are a few reasons public safety officers need their own dedicated networks:

  1. Priority.  Cellular networks do not prioritize their users or traffic.   A teenager’s cell phone has the same priority as a cell phone used by a police officer or, for that matter, the BlackBerry used by President Obama.  We’ve all experienced “no circuits available” or “network busy” when using a cell phone.  When I’m being assaulted or have been injured in an automobile accident or even have had my house burglarized, the last thing I want is to have the network be “busy” so a police officer or EMT couldn’t be dispatched.   Public safety needs dedicated frequencies where police officer sand firefighters have priority and even, perhaps, exclusive rights to for use, without calls being clogged by the public.
  2. Reliability.  Seattle’s public safety radio network, part of the larger King County-wide 800 megahertz public safety radio network, handles more than 60,000 police, fire  and emergency medical calls every day.  It operated last year with 99.9994% reliability – that’s about 189 seconds of downtime out of more the than 31 million seconds which composed the year 2009. On the average, only about five out of the 60,000 calls were delayed for any reason, and even then the average delay was about two seconds.  What cell phone network has that kind of reliability?   How many times have you experienced “no service” or “call dropped” with your cell phone?   Do we want firefighters who are reviving a heart attack victim and talking to the emergency room on the radio to all-of-a-sudden have their call dropped?  Or should police officers lose service when drunk drivers clog the roads and bars are closing at 2:00 AM because a cell phone company decides to do maintenance because “no one uses the network then”?
  3. Disasters.  Even small disasters cause cell phone networks to collapse.   In Seattle, we’ve had swat team actions or car accidents which have shut down a freeway.   Suddenly cell phone service abruptly ceases in that area because EVERYONE is on their phone.  A few years ago a rifleman was loose and shooting people in Tacoma Mall.  Responding police and EMTs had communications because they had dedicated networks and frequencies, but again cell phone networks were overloaded and down.   In a larger disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane (with associated evacuation of large cities), commercial networks will be overloaded or jammed for days by people trying to escape the affected areas. Do we want police and fire departments – or even transportation, electric utilities and public works departments – to be trying to use those same networks while they are are responding to the disaster? I don’t think so.
  4. Talk-around. A key feature of most government-operated networks is something called talk-around or simplex or “walkie-talkie” mode. In this mode, individual radios talk directly to each other, without using a radio or cell tower. This is very important at incident scenes – firefighters commonly use it at the scene of a fire, because the radios will operate at the scene even if there isn’t a tower nearby. But this NEVER a feature of cellular phone networks. If the cell tower is down or out of range, that cell phone in your hands is a useless lump of plastic. But the radios of publicsafety officers still work and will talk to each other even without the tower.
  5. Ruggedness. No firefighter in his/her right mind would fight a fire using a cell phone for communications. The heat, water and ruggedness of the environment would quickly destroy the device. Yet most public safety radios will survive being dropped repeatedly on the ground or being immersed in water for 30 minutes or more. No standard cell phone can survive the rigorous work of firefighting or policing.

Are there problems with the current dedicated public safety networks? Absolutely. The use proprietary technologies, for example “Project 25“. Theoretically all “Project 25” radios work on any “Project 25” radio system. But only a few of those are deployed around the nation. These proprietary technologies are one reason the radios cost up to $5,000 each.

Representative Carlyle, in his blog, proposes that we deploy “Tetra” radios for public safety. While Tetra is common in some parts of the world, it is not used at all in the United States. This is a dangerous proposal, because it means Tetra networks we buy would not work with the equipment used by any other government or telecommunciations carrier anywhere in the United States. If called to respond to a diaster overseas, we could talk to firefighters in Hong Kong or the police in Ireland, however.

Another problem we face is the small market – the total market for public safety is perhaps 10,000,000 radios which are replaced, say, once every 10 years. On the other hand, the cell phone market is huge – 260 million cell phones replaced every two years in the United States alone. The economies of scale means consumers will have a lot more choice, and their cell phones will be relatively cheap.

So is there some way to reduce the sky-high cost of these dedicated public safety networks while at the same time not endangering cops, firefighters, EMTs and the public in general?

Absolutely. The FCC, in its national broadband plan, and the federal Department of Commerce, with its forward-thinking grant program for broadband, are lighting the way for a new public safety network which will be more robust, national in scope, and interoperable. By “interoperable” I mean the new public safety equipment will probably operate almost anywhere in the nation, wether on a dedicated government network or on a commercial cell phone network. Here are some features of the new networks:

  • The FCC and major public safety organizations have called for the new public safety networks to be built using a fourth generation (4G) technology called LTE – long-term evolution. Not coincidently, this is the same technology which will be used by the major cell phone companies Verizon and AT&T when they construct their 4G networks. The commercial networks will operate on different frequencies than the public safety networks, but they will all be built in same general area of the wireless spectrum – the 700 megahertz (MHz) band.
  • Because they are all using the same technology (LTE) and are in a similar slice of radio spectrum (700 MHz) potentially they will all interoperate. That means that public safety officers will use the government networks and frequencies when they are within range, but could “roam” to a commercial network if necessary. So cops and firefighters will have the best of both worlds – coverage from dedicated government networks and coverage from multiple private carriers. The FCC is even considering rules which would require the commercial companies to give public safety priority on the commercial LTE networks.
  • Because everyone – consumers, cops, firefighters and even general government workers such as transporation and utilities – are all using LTE, constructing the networks can be much cheaper. Commercial telecommunications carriers could put government antennas and equipment at their cell sites, and vice-versa. Perhaps the network equipment at the cell site, or even the central switches could be shared as well. Public safety will still be using its own frequencies and have priority, but could share many other network elements.
  • And the radios used by individual public safety officers or placed in police vehicles and fire trucks can be much cheaper as well. Because manufacturers are all making equipment for the same technology – LTE – it could cost just a few hundred dollars. Again, there will be specialized and ruggedized devices for firefighters and others working in punishing environments, but the “innards” – the electronics – will be much less expensive.
  • Next, we have to get all first and second resopnders to use the same or common networks. Here in Washington State, for example, we have multiple overlapping and duplicate networks. City and County police and fire in the region have one network, each electric utility (e.g. Seattle City Light) have another network. Transportation departments have their own networks (e.g. Seattle Transportation and Washington State Transportation each have their own separate network). The Washington State Patrol has its own separate network. The State Department of Natural Resources has its own network. Fish and Wildlife has its own network. And federal government agencies (FBI, cutoms and immigration) have their own networks. This is patently stupid and expensive. As we build these new fourth generation LTE networks, we need to build a single network with lots of sites and a lot of redundancy and hardening to withstand disasters. And everyone – first and second responders from all agencies – should use it.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all the networks will be nationally interoperable. The lack of communciations interoperability was a major finding of the Commission which investigated the September 11th World Trade Center attack. But with these new networks, a Seattle police officer’s 4th generation LTE device will also work on New York City’s LTE network or New Mexico’s :LTE network or on any Verizon or AT&T network anywhere in the nation. As disasters happen anywhere in the United States, and first and second responders are rushed to the scene of the disaster, they can take their communications gear with them and it will work.

The City of Seattle is one of a handful (about 20) forward-thinking governments leading the way to deploy these new networks. Seattle’s public safety LTE network, hopefully launched with a federal stimulus grant, will eventually expand throughout the Puget Sound region and across the State of Washington. The State of Oregon also has authority and a grant request to build an LTE network, and we are working with Oregon to make sure our networks work with each other seamlessly.

Is all of this a pipe dream? I don’t think so. A number of public and private companies, governments and telecommunciations carriers and equipment manufacturers are working together to realize it. Many of them are in the Public Safety Alliance. In the Federal government, the FCC is working with the National Institute of Standards and the Departments of Commerce and Homeland security are providing grant funding. It will take a lot of work and many years to realize this network.

But when it is finished, we’ll have public safety networks which work to keep us safe, and consumer networks which work to keep us productive and linked to our friends and families. These networks will be separate yet connected. They will be built from common technologies. And they will be less expensive for taxpayers than the networks we have today.

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Filed under broadband, disaster, fcc, Fedgov, homecity security, Sept. 11th

– Net Neutrality? But Affordability?!

Net Neutrality?  Click to enlarge

Network Neutrality?

The FCC and a large portion of the nation are wringing our collective hands about net neutrality. But the real issue is not “neutrality” but “affordability” and even “accessibility”. Clearly the future of the Nation depends upon the Internet, but a large portion of households and small businesses can’t afford Internet access at true broadband speeds. And, as cool new applications such as high-definition video develop, the gaps will only widen, and even more Americans will be left in the dust of the Net. Net Neutrality doesn’t mean much if you can’t afford a connection in the first place.

First of all, let’s recognize that providing Internet or broadband is not a competitive, market-driven business. It is a closely held, almost unregulated, monopoly (actually duopoly). Most areas of the United States have very little choice for Internet service providers. You can get DSL or dial-up from Ma Bell (the phone company), or you can get Internet from Ma Cable (the cable company). In a few places you can get Ma Wireless (Clear or Clearwire, also peddled by Sprint-Nextel).

Essentially this is a duopoly – Ma Bell and Ma Cable. And they make sure they don’t “really” compete – they keep prices high to keep profits high from their existing ancient outmoded copper cable networks. And they do everything they can to make the profit larger. You want more channels? You want HDTV? You want an extra modem or cable box? You want faster speeds? In every case, you pony up more bucks. Besides the certainty of death and taxes, there is the certainty your cable bill will rise 5% to 7% or more, year in, year out.

And where do those profits go? To create faster networks or fiber cable networks to help the United States dig our way out of the being in 15th place worldwide for broadband penetration? Hardly, Comcast wants to buy NBC so they will control not only the network, but more of the content flowing across it as well. No wonder Consumerist magazine rates Comcast the most hated company in America. But most cable companies are equally disliked.

Net neutrality is important. When most of the nation has very little choice in Internet providers, and those few providers want to maximize profits, they will be tempted to charge content providers for access. In other words, they might decide to charge Google so its search engine has priority for most users, and other search engines (e.g. Microsoft’s Bing) are slower. Or perhaps Fox’s, ABC’s, and CBS’s web sites will work a bit slower compared to NBC, which pays (or is owned by) an network provider to get priority access to the network. Worse yet, individual users who are on the leading edge, developing web content or Internet applications, may be using a lot of bandwidth. Ma Bell or Ma Cable are already deciding to cap the usage of such users, or charge THEM for priority access. This will stifle innovation. This is happening today, e.g. Frontier in Minnesota and cable companies across the U. S.

The FCC is addressing network neutrality, and is likely to take some action. I spoke on an FCC net neutrality panel in Seattle on April 28th. Most of the panelists supported FCC action to keep the network neutral. My presentation is here.

The real problem, however, is network accessibility and affordability.

The City of Seattle – and other cities and counties – can regulate cable TV to a limited extent. Therefore we can demand cable companies provide a low cost basic service – $12.55 in Seattle for Comcast, for example, and there’s even a discount to that low rate for low-income residents – more details here.

The State of Washington – and other States – can regulate telephone service, and require telephone companies to provide a low cost basic phone rate, e.g. $8 a month for 167,000 households.

But NO ONE regulates broadband/Internet access. Consequently ISPs can charge whatever the market will bear. So in our present monopoly or duopoly environment throughout the nation – that is little choice for most of us – prices are at $30, $40 or more for even moderate speed access. Higher speed access is $100 or more. And that means low-income, immigrant, seniors and other households cannot afford access to the Internet. So they and their children are denied what is probably the most important pathway to education, information, jobs and higher income – access to the Internet. Even middle income households or neighborhood businesses cannot get affordable truly fast (e.g. 5 megabits per second symmetric) broadband.

Elsewhere in the world, homes and businesses and get much higher Internet speeds at much lower costs. France and Japan, for example, have much lower prices than the US for really high speed broadband.

This is an economic development issue, it is making the United States competitive with the rest of the world for innovation in technology, it is a race and social justice issue.

The FCC, in the national broadband plan, has set a bold goal to bring 100 million households a broadband speed of 100 million bits per second by 2020. That’s a remarkable vision, and with active intervention by the FCC, network neutrality on that high speed network will be in place. But, in our nation with the Internet controlled by just a few providers, can such high speed networks really be constructed, and will the Internet access be affordable?

I think not.

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Filed under broadband, cable, fcc, internet

– FCC’s Broadband Plan and Cities

FCC-broadband-plan.jpg

So the FCC has published its national broadband plan.   This plan has many implications for cities and counties and local government.   It has implications for public safety and general government, for consumers, for business, for wired and wireless networks. 

Here’s my take on it:

Q: Is this plan really radical or different?

A: The FCC has charted a brave new vision for the United States with this plan. For example, in this plan the FCC has set a goal of “one hundred squared”, that is, connecting 100 million households with 100 megabits per second. This is radical because it cannot be accomplished with existing copper wire networks such as the telephone networks or cable TV networks. Such speeds require fiber optic cable to every home and business, a radical change. The speeds copper can carry are quite limited. But fiber cable lightwave signals theoretically, have no upper limit on speed. Incidentally, there are about 114 million households in the U.S.

Q: A 100 megabits per second – a 100 million bits per second – is “geekspeak” . What does it really mean for consumers at home or small business?

A: Let me give you one specific example. Many homes and businesses are buying and installing flat screen TVs, and most of those are HDTV – high definition. That’s cool, and the quality of the image is very detailed. But the signal is one way – you “watch the TV” – you don’t really “interact” with it or use it for communications like you use a phone. At the same time, you can buy a video camcorder – even a cheap one like a Flip phone – that takes HDTV video. Now, let’s suppose you could put the video camcorder next to the HDTV and connect them – all of a sudden you would have a video telephone or a video conferencing setup. You could make video phone calls. You could attend meetings with video. You could attend class at a high school or community college or a university, and actually interact with the teacher or professor – ask questions and participate. You could visit your doctor to talk about a health problem, or work from home. You could visit your local appliance store or clothing store and talk to the owner and have the owner demonstrate what you want to buy. You could play really cool interactive video games. And think of the implications for quality of life – with this sort of video, grandparents could have dinner with their kids and grandchildren every night via a video phone. They could see their grandchildren from hundreds or thousands of miles away, or from an assisted living or nursing home. But all of this requires super fast networks for both high quality and almost zero latency – no delay, just like the voice phone network. And this requires fiber with 100 million bits per second or more. To each home or business.

Q: What are the implications for large cities like Seattle?

A: Seattle has been a leader in thinking about these networks. We’ve already installed fiber cable connecting every public school, all our college campuses, every fire station, police precinct and every major government building. We have done extensive planning for a fiber optic cable network to every one of the 300,000 homes and businesses in Seattle. We are a high tech community and we value education. We need such a fiber network for jobs, education and quality of life. Mayor Michael McGinn is very committed to the idea, and a number of departments are working together on a business plan to make it happen. The visionary goals set by the FCC’s broadband plan – 100 million bits per second to 100 million homes – validate that we’re following the right path, and we need to move rapidly to stay ahead of other cities in the United States and around the world.

Q: How can we learn more about this Seattle plan?

A: To stay abreast of it or support it, go to http://www.seattle.gov/broadband .

Q: What are the implications of the FCC plan for suburban and rural communities?

A: Suburban communities can be wired with fiber, just like the FCC’s plan envisions and Seattle intends to do. Some Seattle area communities such as Kirkland and Woodinville already have fiber networks installed by Verizon. In rural communities installing fiber to farms and small towns may not always make economic sense, although in some visionary places like Chelan County, the local PUD is doing it anyway. But the FCC has envisioned an alternative for rural communities – high speed wireless broadband. Today’s wireless networks are usually called “3G” or 3rd Generation. Fourth Generation – 4G – wireless networks will be available in a few places by the end of 2010. These faster networks require a lot of spectrum. You may recall that, in June, 2009, all TV broadcast signals became digital – every TV in the nation had to have a wired cable connection or a digital antenna. The FCC mandated this digital transition to take spectrum away from UHF TV use and give it to telecommunications companies to build 3G and 4G networks. The FCC’s broadband plan calls for adding another 500 megahertz of spectrum to be dedicated to new, faster, wireless networks. The FCC will try to convince TV broadcasters to give up even more of the 300 MHz of spectrum now used for TV. And the government itself controls another 600 MHz of spectrum, some of which could be used for wireless broadband. 

Q: The nation faces a number of threats – terrorism, disasters (like earthquakes and hurricanes like Katrina) and even local disasters like the shooting of four Lakewood, Washington, police officers in 2009. Will the FCC’s national broadband plan help with this problem?

A: Public safety communications were problematical on September 11th in New York City, in the Katrina Hurricane and in other disasters. The public cell phone networks won’t reliably operate in such disasters or, sometimes, even in daily emergencies like power outages. The FCC has allocated 10 Mhz of spectrum in the 700 Mhz band for a nationwide public safety broadband network. In the national broadband plan, the FCC proposes putting money where its mouth has been – the FCC is proposing $6.5 billion in grants to create the public safety network. The City of Seattle is one of only 17 communities nationwide who have asked the FCC for permission to use this spectrum and build such a network. In their plan, the FCC includes a method for setting standards and operating procedures which will allow cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Boston to build. And these municipal or regional public safety wireless broadband networks will interoperate with others nationwide. In fact, under the FCC’s plan, the public safety networks will also interoperate with networks being constructed by AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile. So if a police officer or firefighter can’t get a strong signal from the public safety network the officer could get signals from a commercial network instead. 

Furthermore, Seattle has proposed that other government agencies – our electric utility, Seattle City Light, our water utility, Seattle Public Utilities, our transportation department, and others, also be allowed to use this network. In both daily emergencies and major disasters such “second responders” are vital to public safety and must interoperate with police and fire to keep the public safe. The national broadband plan recognizes this need as well.

Q: Practically, why do we need a public safety wireless broadband network?

A: I’ll give one specific example – video. On October 31, 2009, a Seattle police officer was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant – Christopher Montfort was ultimately charged with the crime. How did the police find Montfort? I’ve discussed this in more detail in this blog entry, but essentially, every Seattle police patrol vehicle has a video camera which records video of traffic stops. The recording goes to a computer in the police vehicle. It took several days for the police to review all the video footage of traffic stops from Seattle police cars. They noticed, in the background of several such stops, a uniquely shaped vehicle cruising by, which was traced back to Montfort. With a wireless broadband network, such video could immediately, in real time, be transmitted to dispatch centers and other police officers. Furthermore, police and firefighters could receive mugshots, building plans, hazardous material data, and video from a variety of sources to improve their response to both daily incidents and larger disasters.

Q: Are there other implications of the plan?

A: Several are worth mentioning and there is a bit more detail in an analysis here.

  • The FCC has recognized that cities and counties need to be able to control their own streets, utility poles and rights-of-way, and receive fair compensation for their use by companies who build broadband networks, while allowing private companies better access to rights of way to build networks.
  • The FCC has recommended to Congress that it pre-empt laws in 18 states which prohibit cities and counties from building broadband networks. In most places, there is no competition for broadband – there are only one or two providers, usually the cable TV company and the phone company, with older, slower, networks. In places where the city or county has built a network – like Tacoma – consumer costs are significantly lower for phone, cable TV and Internet access.
  • The plan calls for strengthened cybersecurity measures to protect broadband networks, consumers and businesses from hackers and other cybersecurity threats.
  • The FCC plans to revamp the Universal Service Fund (USF) to help subsidize broadband adoption.

In summary, the FCC’s plan is visionary. Certainly it was carefully crafted with many competing interests interests in mind.  And it doesn’t really provide any good mechanism to encourage competition between private providers.  Such competition would reduce costs to users.  Nevertheless, if it is followed, will materially improve the economy, safety, and quality of life for the people of the United States.

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– Schrier to the FCC: Broadband

Fiber Broadband - Click for more

Fiber Broadband - Click for more

This morning the FCC will start a year-long process to craft a “National Broadband Plan for our Future”.

The agenda is here and here’s Ars Technica’s insightful view of the process. The meeting can be viewed live at 10:00 AM (EDT) here, and the video record should be posted at that site after the meeting is finished.

I’ve blogged a number of times about broadband and how I feel the only real “broadband” is fiber-to-the-premise. I feel the United States is in danger of becoming a “third world country” in broadband networks.

Here’s what I’ll tell the FCC Commissioners today (with a little luck, and FTP/Video technology willing):


Good morning Commissioners.

I’m Bill Schrier, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Seattle, and I bring you greetings from “the other Washington”.

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Commission on broadband and its effect upon economic development and jobs.

Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle is the incoming President of the United States Conference of Mayors and has been an outspoken proponent of broadband – and specifically fiber to the premise – since 2005 when a citizen’s commission recommended creation of a symmetric, 25 megabits per second or faster fiber network.

We feel such a network will bring a fundamental change America’s economy – it will affect our way of working and playing as profoundly as did the telegraph, telephone, railroad, and original Internet.

We believe a fiber network is an investment which will last 50 years or more

We believe such a fiber network will carry two-way high-definition video streams. This network can convert every high-definition television set into a video conferencing station. And this addresses a fundamental human need – to actually see our co-workers and friends.

For the first time, working at home – true telework – will be possible because workers can connect with each other and see each other in real time. Whole technology businesses will collaborate on developing 21st century products. Students will be able to attend classes and interact with their classmates from home. Quality of life will improve as families scattered across a region can talk together while actually seeing each other.

Such a network can significantly reduce commute trips and travel. This, in turn, reduces our dependence upon imported oil and reduces the production of greenhouse gases.

You are launching this momentous task of creating a national broadband strategy. I urge you to think of fiber broadband with two-way video and similar applications as a fundamentally new economic network for America. I urge you to think in decades, not years. And, again, on behalf of the people of Seattle and Mayor Greg Nickels, thank you for listening.


I also had an ex parte meeting regarding the definition of “broadband” with FCC staff on March 31st. The public record of my statements at the meeting are here.

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