Lawmakers Offer Support for Public Safety Network

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U.S. lawmakers plan to start implementing parts of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's new national broadband plan soon by introducing legislation to pay for a nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety agencies, one lawmaker said Thursday.

Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he will introduce legislation that would implement the FCC's recommendations for a nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety agencies such as police and fire departments. Waxman has already asked his staff to begin drafting the legislation although the broadband plan has been out for just nine days, he said during a subcommittee hearing.

"Significant funding" will be necessary for the nationwide network, and the committee will need support from both Democrats and Republicans to move forward, Waxman said.

The broadband plan recommends that Congress allocate US$12 billion to $16 billion over the next 10 years to build and maintain a nationwide network, although some people in the wireless industry have suggested those estimates are too low.

Waxman noted that there's a "strong disagreement" about what to do with the so-called D block of the 700MHz spectrum that was originally envisioned by the FCC for shared commercial/public safety service. Several public safety groups have asked the FCC to turn over the D block to them after it failed to sell in an auction that ended in early 2008.

But Congress and the FCC can keep the costs of building a nationwide public safety network down by moving quickly and funding it at the same time mobile carriers are rolling out 4G networks, said Julius Genachowski, the FCC's chairman. "To move forward on this now, while commercial 4G networks are being built out, is the least expensive way to make sure that we build a public safety network," he said. "If we wait, the price will only go up."

Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat and chairman of the committee's technology and Internet subcommittee, told FCC members that he supports the broadband plan's proposal asking Congress to pay for the public safety network. Boucher suggested that the FCC auction off the so-called D block of the 700MHz spectrum, freed up when television stations moved to all-digital broadcasts last June, and use the money to help fund equipment and expenses for the nationwide network.

The broadband plan's proposal to sell off the D block is "on the right track," Boucher said.

"It's essential that when they converge from different localities upon the scene of a disaster, that fire, police and rescue be able to communicate one with the other," Boucher said. "We're 10 years beyond 9/11, and that capability does not exist on a nationwide basis."

Public safety officials and U.S. lawmakers have been calling for a nationwide mobile broadband network since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., during which the multiple public safety agencies responding to the attacks couldn't communicate with each other.

Congress, in late 2005, passed legislation requiring U.S. TV stations to move to all-digital broadcasts and abandon analog spectrum between channels 52 and 69. Much of the cleared spectrum, in the 700MHz band, was sold in auctions that ended in March 2008, but the D block failed to sell.

Boucher, however, questioned recommendations in the broadband plan that would require the winner of the D block and other portions of the 700MHz spectrum to share their spectrum with public safety agencies when it's needed.

The goal wouldn't be to put "onerous" conditions on spectrum holders but to allow a nationwide network to finally be put in place, Genachowski said.

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