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

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Advocates of a nationwide public safety network have long argued that many emergency response networks are badly outdated, with many teenagers' smartphones offering better tools.

A high-speed voice and data network would allow firefighters to download floor plans for burning buildings and let police download the criminal records of people they encounter, advocates have said. A new network also would allow police officers to use smart devices to take pictures of fingerprints at crime scenes and get immediate matches from law enforcement databases, according to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The Senate bill would direct the FCC to develop technical and operational standards for a nationwide network. It would allow the FCC to share auction proceeds with television stations and other spectrum holders that voluntarily give up spectrum, with some of the government's proceeds funding the public safety network.

Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller, the committee chairman and bill sponsor, has called the public safety network a top priority. "Implementing a national, interoperable radio system for our first responders is within our grasp," he said in a recent statement. "It will save lives all across the country, and we owe it to first responders to get it done. There is bipartisan legislation awaiting Senate action that would accomplish this goal."

The Rockefeller bill passed through the Senate Commerce Committee in June with a 21-4 bipartisan vote. Still, passage of the bill is not guaranteed, particularly in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Top Republicans in the House Energy and Commerce Committee have voiced opposition to efforts to give the D block to public safety agencies, citing budget concerns. Auctioning the D block could raise $3 billion for the U.S. Treasury as the government faces record deficits, some Republicans have argued.

In 2010, there seemed to be a consensus forming around auctioning the D block, with the FCC, leading House Energy and Commerce Democrats and some members of the 9/11 Commission supporting an auction, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the committee chairman, said during a July hearing. Then, in February, President Barack Obama called for Congress to give the D block away.

"Let's be honest, but for the president's call in February to allocate the D block, we'd be much further along today," Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said during the July hearing. "I know we'll hear arguments about how that was then and this is now and things have changed, but at the heart of the matter, absent the president's proposal, D block would not be quite the stumbling block it has become.

"My comments are not intended to be partisan, however, they are intended to state the political reality that has fallen upon our committee," Walden added. "I'm just stating the obvious about the awkward."

Public safety groups told the House committee they'd strongly oppose any efforts to auction the D block.

Despite the disagreement over the D block, public safety groups say they are optimistic that Congress will authorize the network. "There's more resolve than ever," said Sean Kirkendall, an adviser to the Public Safety Alliance, a group pushing for a nationwide network.

There is considerable support for allocating the D block, with the former chairmen of the 9/11 Commission now calling for Congress to give the spectrum to emergency responders. "The public safety community, many commercial carriers and the White House are on record supporting allocating the D Block to public safety," McEwen said. "We still believe that those who have not supported that position will, in the end, change their mind and support the needs of public safety."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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