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Broadband deficiencies: Data sharing amid disaster

SLOW INTERNET service doesn’t just make it inconvenient to watch YouTube. As the response to Boston Marathon bombings proved, broadband deficiencies can hamper public safety workers, who rely on cellular services to communicate during major crises.

Currently, public safety entities work off of the same commercial carriers as everyone else. That is usually sufficient. But manhunts and high-intensity investigations like the ones that followed the bombings require law enforcement agencies to share of large volumes of data — often photos and videos, like those that led to the identification of the Tsarnaev brothers. Post-Marathon assessments by the Department of Homeland Security and the Pew Charitable Trust about the challenges of data sharing reinforce the need for a dedicated public safety wireless network.

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The Federal Communications Commission is in the early stages of committing exclusive broadband for emergency services. This frequency would be reserved for federal agencies and local law enforcement. Last year, Congress allocated $7 billion for such a network and reserved some spectrum capacity for it.

But FirstNet, the government agency created to manage the effort, has only recently selected a general manager and remains an estimated $8 billion short of what it would cost to build a true national network. Local and state entities need to contribute to the effort. If successful, it would allow them to save considerable resources on their current systems.

As the FCC begins a decades-long process of upgrading broadband access for all citizens, it too must remember the importance of a dedicated public safety network. Existing systems are too easily overwhelmed when crises occur.

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