Congress Hears Conflicting Ideas for Public Safety Network

Eight years and one failed spectrum auction after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., police and fire departments still don't have a national wireless broadband network to communicate with each other, and Congress heard conflicting ideas on how to create one.

On Thursday, a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee heard four proposals on what to do with 10MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz band that didn't sell in a U.S. Federal Communications Commission auction that ended in March 2008. The FCC had hoped to auction the 10MHz to a commercial operator, which could pair it with another 10MHz of spectrum controlled by a public safety organization to build a nationwide wireless network.

That plan, which would have created a network shared by public safety and commercial users, fell flat when the so-called D block failed to sell, in part because of concerns mobile carriers had with requirements imposed by the FCC.

During Thursday's hearing, public safety officials called on Congress to simply give the 10MHz D block to public safety agencies. Paired with the 10MHz already controlled by the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), a nonprofit organization with representatives from several public safety groups, the spectrum grant would allow local and regional public safety groups to move forward with wireless networks, said William Bratton, chief of police in Los Angeles.

Bratton acknowledged lawmaker concerns over the loss of revenue for the U.S. government if the D block isn't auctioned. Some estimates put the value of the spectrum at US $3 billion or more.

"We see this scenario in fundamentally different terms," he said. "We view the re-allocation of the D block as critically needed investment in public safety, rather than a loss of revenue. This investment of spectrum into public safety will reap large dividends far into the future with reduced crime and victims."

Many U.S. lawmakers and public-safety officials pushed for a nationwide network to be created after emergency response agencies couldn't communicate with each other during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Police and fire departments in neighboring cities often use different communication devices on different blocks of spectrum.

But other witnesses at the hearing offered other ideas for the D block. Kostas Liopiros, founder of technology management consultancy the Sun Fire Group, suggested that the FCC re-auction the 10MHz D block and use the money to fund the build-out of a national public safety network using the 10MHz already controlled by PSST.

But Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, questioned whether another auction would come close to paying for a national network and whether 10MHz would be enough spectrum for it. A nationwide network could cost up to $20 billion to build, Boucher said.

"It would be good, at least for a start," Liopiros said.

Lawmakers and witnesses also discussed re-auctioning the spectrum and again trying to work out a partnership between the PSST and a commercial carrier. And Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, a trade group focused on emergency calling services, suggested that Congress and the FCC take away the 10MHz controlled by the PSST and auction it and the D block together.

That 20MHz block could then be used as a combined commercial/public safety network, Fontes said. A re-auction of the D block alone wouldn't raise enough money to build out a national network within a couple of years, he said.

Several lawmakers said it's important for Congress or the FCC to move ahead with a plan for public safety, but Boucher, chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, questioned how any of the plans would raise the needed money.

"I'm not sure any of these proposals, if implemented, derive the revenues that we have to have in order to build out this spectrum, particularly in rural areas," he said. "My thought is, at the end of the day, we're going to find ourselves looking for some kind of [U.S. government] general fund revenues in order to finance this."

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