Proponents Optimistic That Interoperable Public Safety Network Bill Will Pass

By Stew Magnuson
At a recent Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee hearing on the state of interoperable communications for first responders, lawmakers and Department of Homeland Security officials gave themselves high marks.

It is becoming much easier for fire fighters, police and other public safety agencies to talk to each other in emergencies, they said. Interoperable communications have been a long-standing goal of the homeland security community. The 9/11 attacks— and Hurricane Katrina four years later — pointed to the difficulties different agencies spread across different jurisdictions had speaking with each other.

“Significant progress has been made in bringing these organizations together,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. A combination of federal stimulus money, DHS grants, and state and local funds have helped tie communication systems together.

Recent operational tests conducted by DHS in 60 urban areas found that all of the agencies and jurisdictions were able to communicate with each other.

The committee was speaking of traditional, push-to-talk radios, though.

The world, however, has moved on.

“Right now, my son and daughter have more [broadband] capability than the firefighters do responding to emergencies every day,” Michael D. Varney, statewide interoperability coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said at the hearing.  

Smartphones, tablets and other devices have become ubiquitous just about everywhere but police stations and fire departments.

Lieberman said a fire truck rushing to a burning building should be able to receive electronic blueprints of the structure so commanders can begin to plan an operation. Police should be able to take biometric information such as fingerprints and transmit them instantaneously to a server where they can be checked against criminal databases.

The valuable and increasingly crowded spectrum that would be required to bring these capabilities to first responders can be found in the D block, a band that became free when television stations switched from analog to digital broadcasts. The Federal Communications Commission attempted to auction off these airwaves to any entity that wished to build a nationwide first responder network in 2008, but it did not receive enough bids.

The D block has remained in limbo ever since.

The FCC in its national broadband plan released in 2010 proposed that the D block be auctioned off to telecommunications companies that could use the spectrum for their paying customers, with the understanding that first responders would have priority access in times of emergency.

Lieberman and ranking minority leader Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, stacked the hearing with witnesses who opposed that plan. All testified that the D block should be for first responders only. Legislation to force the FCC to do that did not advance last year.

Heather Hogsett, director of the National Governors Association’s homeland security and public safety committee, said legislation has a better chance of passing this year.

The Spectrum Act (S.911), a bill introduced by Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.V., has strong bipartisan support in the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the mater. It would raise funding for the network by allowing broadcasters who have spectrum that they no longer need to sell it back to the FCC, which would auction it off. Broadcasters who hold licenses for unneeded airwaves currently have no mechanism to sell it to other parties, or to return it to the FCC and receive compensation. Broadcasters could receive a portion of the proceeds if they voluntarily give up their unused bands.

“It is a unique, one-time opportunity to have a far reaching, dramatic impact on public safety communications,” Hogsett said.

The auctions, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, could garner up to $26 billion. The bill proposes taking $3 billion of the auction proceeds to fund the reallocation of the D block, $12 billion to build infrastructure for a nationwide network, with a few more billion for research and development to reduce the cost of communication devices for first responders. The leftover money would all go toward reducing the federal deficit, she said.

A piece of this plan was included in an early draft of the Democrat’s deficit reduction bill introduced in August, but it did not survive into the version that was ultimately passed, she said. Nevertheless, it was a positive sign that leadership is onboard with the plan.

The sticking point is the Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction in that chamber. Many members there still favor the FCC plan.

“There is more work that needs to be done in the House,” she said. There is bipartisan support for S.911 in the House Homeland Security Committee, she noted.

The so-called “big seven” organizations that represent state and local governments, of which NGA is one, are all united behind the D-block allocation, she said. The plan “would pay for itself and still provide money for deficit reduction,” Hogsett said.

Despite the ideological conflicts that have notoriously held up legislation in the Republican-led House and the Democrat-led Senate this year, Hogsett is optimistic that the bill will pass by the end of 2011. There are too many major organizations such as NGA supporting it to be ignored, she said.  

Meanwhile, one of the bill’s opponents may have thrown in the towel. Connect Public Safety Now, a group funded by telecommunications companies that advocated for the FCC plan to auction off the D-block with few strings attached, no longer seems to be active. No news or statements has been posted on its website since March, and the phone number for its media representative has been disconnected.

Topics: Homeland Security, Emergency Communications

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