A Federal Communications Commission plan that would sell to the private sector valuable spectrum that was once reserved for public safety agencies is facing stiff opposition from lawmakers and the Department of Homeland Security.
At issue is the D block of radio spectrum that became free when the FCC ended analog television broadcasts in June 2009.
Original plans called for portions of the block, which has 10 megahertz of spectrum, to be used by federal, state and local public safety organizations. Both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina highlighted the need for interoperable communication systems that would allow all government agencies involved in emergency management to easily communicate with each other.
A 2008 auction that would have sold the D block to a provider — which in turn would have offered its services to public safety agencies — only garnered one bid. The FCC, however, said that bid was too low, and the plan remained in limbo for the remainder of the Bush administration.
In March, the FCC released the National Broadband Plan, which called for the D block to be auctioned off to commercial providers. They would sell their wireless broadband services to consumers, but with the provision that public safety agencies be given priority access in times of emergency. This would give the private sector an incentive to invest in and build up the system’s infrastructure, the FCC plan said.
The D block would allow first responders to use wireless broadband, and all the applications that it supports, such as smart-phone technology that could send live, streaming video of a disaster scene to other agencies or back to a command-and-control center. The block is also prized by both first responders and telecommunications providers for its ability to penetrate walls and other structures.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced bills that will require the FCC to revert to the original plan and give the D block to the public safety sector.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Liebermann, I-Conn., introduced the First Responders Protection Act of 2010. Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., introduced similar legislation in the House.
“It is outrageous … that federal and local agencies are unable to communicate with each other in the matter of a national emergency,” McCain said at a press conference announcing the bill. Standing with McCain and Liebermann were representatives from firefighting and police organizations.
San Jose, Calif., Chief of Police Rob Davis, who also serves as president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said he is concerned that in times of crisis first responders will not be able to communicate on the commercial system.
“While it is important that people can text their votes to American Idol, it is more important that police and firefighters can communicate with each other,” he said.
Equally concerned with the FCC plan is the Department of Homeland Security.
Gregory Schaffer, assistant secretary at the office of cybersecurity and communications, said DHS cannot currently endorse the FCC’s plan.
It is expected that the D block will host 4G, or fourth-generation, technology. The problem is that 4G networks are still in development, and it’s unclear how priority access will work, Schaffer said at a House Homeland Security subcommittee on emergency communications, preparedness and response hearing.
“Both the technical and legal frameworks for this type of plan must be evaluated, and capacity and capability outcomes understood, before any decision can be made regarding the spectrum requirements for public safety,” he said.
Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., and chairwoman of the subcommittee, pressed Schaffer on DHS’ position on the proposed 2011 auction.
“We believe that a decision on an auction needs to wait until some of these technical questions can be worked out,” he said.
Legal concerns center around what exactly “first priority” means and how that would work, Richardson said. Commercial systems become overwhelmed in times of crisis when members of the general public flood mobile phone networks to check in with loved ones, she pointed out. Who will be liable if a first responder’s call is dropped, and lives are lost?
The FCC fired back at the plan’s critics with a 27-page white paper that addresses the technical concerns. “The Public Safety Nationwide Interoperable Broadband Network: A New Model for Performance, Capacity and Cost” said the 10 megahertz of dedicated spectrum allocated to public safety has “more than the required capacity for day-to-day communications” and for many serious emergency scenarios. For catastrophic emergencies, first responders would switch over into the remainder of the 700 megahertz of spectrum that supports broadband, where they would be given priority access, FCC chief technologist Jon Peha wrote in the paper.
Heather Hogsett, director of homeland security and public safety at the National Governors Association, said with so many firefighter, police, state and local government associations as well as “heavy hitter” lawmakers speaking out in opposition to the FCC’s plans, she doubts the commission would proceed with the planned auction in 2011.
The proposed legislation “sends a very strong message to the FCC that Congress is not 100 percent on board with the D-block auction ... and we’re hopeful that that will give us time to work through these issues,” she said.
There has been no firm date announced for the auction. With a legislative calendar shortened by the mid-term elections, Congress may not be able to pass any of the bills by the end of the year, she told National Defense.
Meanwhile, “the White House has tried to make it very clear that they do not have a position on the D block,” she said. A memorandum signed by President Obama in June on the National Broadband Plan took no position on the issue. For now, the White House seems to want to stay above the fray, she added.