The Federal Communications Commission in the release of its National Broadband Plan in April, said it was committed to bringing interoperable communications to the nation’s emergency personnel.
“To ensure the safety of the American people, every first responder must have access to a nationwide, interoperable, broadband public safety network,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
Details in the document, however, showed that the FCC is abandoning its plan to save the 700 MHz D-block of spectrum that was originally intended to be the exclusive domain of police and fire departments.
The D-block was made available three years ago after the switch from analog to digital television broadcasts. The original plan was to sell the spectrum to providers who would build up the network and offer their services to first responders. But the auction failed to garner a high enough bid.
The plan was in limbo for the last few years of the Bush administration. Now the FCC wants to auction off the valuable airwaves to commercial broadband providers, who would not be obligated to use the D-block exclusively for first responders. The space is highly coveted by both commercial providers and emergency personnel for its ability to penetrate buildings.
The National Broadband Plan said, “The FCC should quickly license the D block for commercial use, while implementing several requirements for the D block licensee(s) to maximize options for partnerships with public safety.”
One of the stipulations is that the providers give priority access to first responders. The plan also calls for the development of a common interface that would create radio interoperability for all those using the spectrum.
This would “encourage a larger number of potential users and allow public safety entities to benefit from commercial economies of scale that otherwise would not exist,” the plan stated.
The proposal to have commercial broadband and public safety organizations share space garnered a sharp rebuke from the National Governors Association. In a letter to Genachowski, the organization asked that the D block only be used for public safety. The association doesn’t believe there will be cost savings for state and local emergency personnel.
“Allowing first responders roaming and priority access for a fee is not sufficient because it adds cost and complexity to their communications,” the NGA said.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee and Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the emerging threats, cybersecurity, and science and technology subcommittee, have introduced legislation that would torpedo the FCC plans.
“We cannot place brave Americans’ lives at risk through a piecemeal approach to our spectrum allocation,” King said in a statement.