FCC to ask Congress for $18B for public safety network

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will ask Congress for $16 billion to $18 billion to pay for building and maintaining a nationwide mobile broadband network for emergency response agencies, including police and fire departments.

The FCC will also recommend, in a national broadband plan due to be released next month, that mobile carriers that paid billions of dollars for spectrum in the 700MHz band be required to share their spectrum with public safety agencies, agency Chairman Julius Genachowski said today.

A grant program of up to $18 billion over 10 years is needed to get a nationwide, interoperable public safety network built, Genachowski said in a press briefing. Public safety officials and U.S. lawmakers have been calling for a nationwide mobile broadband network since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., during which the multiple public safety agencies responding to the attacks couldn't talk to each other.

"This is important," Genachowski said. "We have gone too long with little progress to show for it. The private sector simply is not going to build a nationwide, state-of-the-art, interoperable broadband network for public safety on its own dime."

Asked if Congress might balk at spending $16 billion or more on a public safety network, Genachowski said the network is necessary. The FCC's plan represents the "best and shortest path" to needed emergency communications for public safety agencies, he said.

After a protracted battle, Congress, in late 2005, passed legislation requiring TV stations to move to all-digital broadcasts and abandon analog spectrum between channels 52 and 69. Much of the cleared spectrum, in the 700MHz band, was sold in auctions that ended in March 2008, and many spectrum experts say the spectrum is optimal for wireless broadband services.

But a block of spectrum that the FCC tried to sell for a shared commercial/public safety service failed to sell, and the FCC has not attempted to re-auction that D block of spectrum since then.

The FCC's national broadband plan will recommend that the D block be resold, but that public safety agencies would also have access to about 80MHz of spectrum sold to carriers including Verizon Communications and AT&T. Public safety agencies would have priority access on that spectrum under the FCC's plan.

With access to other spectrum, public safety agencies would have access to a redundant and reliable network, Genachowski said.

CTIA, a trade group representing mobile carriers, didn't have a reaction to the proposal. AT&T looks forward to seeing more details when the national broadband plan comes out, a spokeswoman said.

But public safety officials are "disappointed" with the proposal, said Charles Werner, fire chief for Charlottesville, Va. Several groups representing public safety agencies had asked Congress to reallocate the D block of spectrum to public safety agencies. Just last month, groups including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and National Sheriffs' Association called on Congress to pass legislation turning over the spectrum to public safety agencies.

"There have been few times in my career that I have seen total alignment between all of the national public safety organizations as we have with the proposal to reallocate the D Block to public safety," Werner said. "Having said that, it is imperative that public safety direct its energies to determine the best path forward to achieve effective and interoperable public-safety broadband communications. Failure is not an option."

The national broadband plan will also include plans to enhance the nation's 911 emergency dialing service by linking it into broadband, Genachowski said. The plan will also focus on improving cybersecurity and the reliability of U.S. broadband networks, he said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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