Public safety groups press for more spectrum

A coalition of emergency responder groups has launched a campaign to persuade Congress and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to give them a 10MHz block of spectrum that the FCC wants to auction for commercial mobile broadband purposes.

The Public Safety Alliance, with members including the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said Monday it will push hard to get Congress to turn over the so-called D block of the 700MHz spectrum block to its members, despite a recent proposal by the FCC to auction the spectrum.

Several public safety groups have voiced opposition to the FCC plan to auction the D block ever since agency Chairman Julius Genachowski made the proposal in February. But on Monday, the Public Safety Alliance announced it is beginning a campaign including advertising, a new Web site and information aimed at members of Congress. The group is also calling for congressional hearings.

Public safety agencies need the D block in order to have enough wireless spectrum to build a nationwide voice and data network that police, fire departments and other emergency responder agencies need, said Charles Dowd, deputy chief in the New York City Police Department.

The D block is "the one opportunity to get enough spectrum that's public safety-appropriate," he said. "If we don't get this spectrum now, we're not going to have the capacity we need for now and the future."

Public safety agencies and some lawmakers have been calling for a nationwide wireless network since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when many of the police and fire departments that responded couldn't talk to each other. But there's new momentum on the side of public safety agencies, Dowd said.

"The unprecedented unity in the first-responder community demonstrates how critical this communications capability is for those who put their lives on the line everyday to protect America," San Jose Chief of Police and Major Cities Chiefs Association President Rob Davis said in a statement. "Almost nine years since this need was tragically underscored on 9/11, it's long overdue for Congress immediately to hold hearings and help keep America safe by providing this nationwide communications network, controlled and operated by public safety, not by commercial carriers."

For the past year and a half, public safety agencies have pressed "anybody who would listen to us" to turn over the D block to them, he said. In late April, Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, introduced the Broadband for First Responders Act, which would give the D block to emergency responder groups. The bill has 21 co-sponsors.

"We think we're building a convincing case for Congress to reallocate that spectrum to us," Dowd said.

FCC spokesman Robert Kenny noted that the agency's plan to build out a nationwide network has support from the co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission. The FCC has already approved waivers for 21 state or local governments to move forward with early build-out, he said.

"We agree with the public safety community that it is imperative for America's first responders to have a robust, nationwide interoperable broadband network," he said. "The FCC's plan ... will ensure the build-out of a network that is cutting-edge, reliable, and cost-effective."

The FCC originally envisioned that 10MHz D block would be sold in the 700MHz auction that ended in March 2008. The FCC plan, then, was for the winning bidder to pair the D block with another 10MHz block controlled by public safety agencies and to build a nationwide mobile broadband network to be shared by emergency responders and commercial users.

But the D block failed to receive the minimum bids set by the FCC. In February, Genachowski announced a new plan to auction the D block without the emergency response conditions, with Congress using the money from the D block and other auctions to fund a nationwide emergency responder network, at a cost of up to $16 billion over 10 years.

Emergency responders appreciate that the FCC is calling on Congress to fund a nationwide network, but first, they need enough spectrum to meet their long-term voice and data needs, Dowd said. The Public Safety Alliance doesn't believe that the 10MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz band that public safety agencies control now will be enough for heavy data needs, including real-time database queries on specific locations where police are called, he said.

"The problem is, if we don't have enough spectrum for the build-out, then all the money in the world that you want to give us doesn't solve the problem," Dowd said. "We have to have enough spectrum to get the job done."

In addition, Dowd raised concerns about the FCC's plan for financing the nationwide public safety network. "We don't believe that selling the D block would bring them anywhere near the money they need," he said.

The FCC's current plan would allow public safety agencies to use some commercial spectrum in the 700MHz band, but Dowd downplayed the usefulness of commercial spectrum. "If you're viewing this thing as a noncritical data transferring system, then it might have worked," he said. "We're looking to do all our mission-critical work on this system. It has to be built to a public safety grade of standard and coverage, and commercial networks just don't do that."

The public safety groups have also collected the backing of the National Governors Association, the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and several other groups.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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