Despite Green Light, First Responder Network Could Take Years to Develop

By Stew Magnuson
Interoperable radios — along with robust airwaves that are dedicated to firefighters and police communications — have been a longstanding goal in the public safety community.

The freeing up of spectrum once used by TV broadcasters in the analog era known as the D-block, seemed to be the easiest solution, but turning over this valuable unseen real estate to public safety agencies has been a long road.

Congress bypassed the desire of the Federal Communications Commission and telecommunications companies, which wanted to carry consumer wireless traffic in the highly desirable D-block in exchange for promises to give public safety agencies priority access.

Congress sided with a large coalition of firefighter, police and state and local associations that wanted the D-Block reserved exclusively for public safety. That spectrum has gone largely unused since television stations switched to digital broadcasts in 2007. First responders already have exclusive radio channels, but the D-block will allow for more data throughput and enable live, streaming videos, and applications that are now common on smartphones and other consumer devices. The D-block spectrum also performs well in concrete buildings and other structures.

The FCC attempted to auction the D-block off to an entity that would build a public safety network in 2007. It would have sold its services to local and state users, but the FCC only received one bid, which it deemed too low.

Afterwards, telecommunications companies began a lobbying and public relations campaign to have the D-block sold to them for use by their wireless customers, with the promise that public safety agencies would have priority use of the radio waves in times of crisis.

The new law extending tax cuts to the end of the year put an end to that idea, when it included a rider that settled all these matters.  It included a mechanism for broadcasters that have licenses for spectrum they no longer need to return it to the FCC and to receive compensation after they are auctioned off to wireless companies. Previously, license-holders had no way of selling or returning this increasingly valuable property without compensation. The Office of Management and Budget has estimated a $28 billion windfall for government coffers. Most of the proceeds from the FCC auctions will go toward paying for the tax cuts. However, some $7 billion will be held back to fund the nationwide, public safety network.

However, all indications point to it being many years before this nationwide network comes to fruition.

Trade publications that follow the broadcast industry report that TV stations may not be interested in giving up their unused spectrum. They may want to save it to some day send their content to smartphones and other mobile devices.

It will also take several years for the FCC to set up the auction, gather public opinions and do the required rulemaking.

And then, the infrastructure will have to be built.  

Heather Hogsett, director of homeland security and public safety at the National Governors Association, said the main obstacle was Congress. Now that the mechanism for selling spectrum is in place, and the D-block’s public safety exclusivity has been enshrined in law, work can begin.

“But no one ever said this would be easy,” she said.

Two boards will first have to be organized. The Department of Commerce will set up one that will create the business plan for the system. The FCC will name members to a second board that will take care of standards and technical issues to ensure the public safety communication systems are interoperable across jurisdictions.

Once those are set, governors will have 90 days to decide whether their states want to participate in the national system, or go their own way, Hogsett said. If they want to fund their own systems, they will still have to comply with the national standards. That will ensure that police and firefighters from neighboring states and cities can communicate.

Hogsett did not want to venture a guess on how long this process will take. The two boards must begin work by the end of this year. It does not necessarily hinge on the auctions because up to $2 billion can be borrowed against future proceeds, she noted.

There are also about two dozen jurisdictions — including eight states — that have waivers because they have already begun work on their own public safety communication networks. They may be able to offer the technical board some valuable lessons learned and save it some time, she noted.

Topics: Homeland Security, Emergency Communications

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