Ten years after 9/11: Public safety network may be near

Emergency response groups see momentum in Congress for a nationwide voice and data network

Ten years ago, on Sept. 11, terrorists crashed airplanes into the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in northern Virginia and a field in rural Pennsylvania. In the scramble to respond to the terrorist attacks, multiple fire departments and other emergency agencies converged on the scenes, only to find that they couldn't talk to each other.

Most emergency response agencies, coming from multiple jurisdictions, operated their own radio systems using different bands of the wireless spectrum. In New York, police and fire radio channels were overloaded, and many emergency workers in the North Tower died because they missed calls to evacuate after the South Tower collapsed.

Since the 9/11 attacks, dozens of U.S. lawmakers -- as well as public safety groups and the 9/11 Commission -- have called on the government to create a nationwide mobile voice and data network for emergency responders. It hasn't happened.

The effort to build a nationwide network has been stalled since early 2008, when a block of mobile spectrum designated for a shared public safety and commercial network failed to sell in the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's 700MHz auction. The FCC set a reserve price of $1.3 billion, but bidders were scared away by the cost of building the network and by other rules attached to the so-called D block.

The top bid for the D block spectrum was $472 million. The spectrum -- and a nationwide public safety network -- have been in limbo since, with U.S. lawmakers unable to agree on a path forward and other issues garnering more attention.

Still, more than seven years after the 9/11 Commission released its report, some public safety officials are hopeful that congressional approval for a nationwide network is close.

"Following 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, a record year for tornadoes, serious wildfires in the West, an earthquake in Virginia and Hurricane Irene, the proof of the need for a dedicated and mission critical nationwide public safety network is overwhelming," said Charles Werner, fire chief in Charlottesville, Va., and a longtime proponent of a nationwide network. "Yes to a nationwide public safety network is the only conceivable answer."

Many police officers and firefighters now use commercial mobile phone services to communicate on the job, advocates of a nationwide network said. But during 9/11 and more recent disasters "commercial wireless services were challenged in one way or another," Werner said. "If the network doesn't work at the moment public safety needs it most, it is useless and dangerous."

Congress appears ready to move forward with legislation that would create a nationwide network, said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

"I am frustrated but I am also very hopeful," said McEwen, also a retired police chief in Ithaca, N.Y. , and a former deputy assistant director at the FBI. "It has been disappointing that Congress hasn't addressed this matter sooner but I am optimistic we are finally getting close to their taking action."

The Senate may take up legislation authorizing funding and spectrum for a national network as soon as later this month. The Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act would give the 10MHz D block to emergency response agencies, allowing the agencies to pair the spectrum with another 10MHz already dedicated to emergency communications.

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