Lawmakers Urge Super Committee To Recommend Allocating D Block for Safety

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By Paul Barbagallo  

Several influential Democratic and Republican lawmakers called on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction Nov. 15 to include in its recommendations to Congress a bill that would allocate the D Block of 700 MHz spectrum for the building of a nationwide emergency communications network.

At a Capitol Hill press conference, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.); the chairmen of the Senate and House homeland security committees, Joe Lieberman (I.-Conn.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.); and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Communications Subcommittee, joined police and fire chiefs and members of first-responder agencies to urge the so-called super committee to consider S. 911, which passed the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in June but has stalled in the Senate.

The committee is to report by Nov. 23 with its recommendations, and Congress must hold an up-or-down vote by Dec. 23. It is widely believed that the super committee will include some form of spectrum policy legislation in its recommendations, but it is still unclear how it will deal with the issue of the D Block.

“We will use whatever vehicle is moving now,” Gillibrand said, adding that the budget omnibus provides another opportunity.

“We're going to fight hard to get it done here,” Schumer added. “If, God forbid, the super committee doesn't come up with its deal [that includes allocating the D Block], we're going to fight for it to be in the omnibus. We have two more opportunities this year to get this proposal done and we're going to do everything we can to see that that happens.”

Interoperable Network, Incentive Auctions.

The aptly numbered S. 911, championed by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), would not only allocate the 10 megahertz D block for the building of a nationwide interoperable broadband network for public safety, but would also authorize the Federal Communications Commission to hold voluntary “incentive auctions” of spectrum, in which television broadcasters, who license spectrum through the FCC, could release some of it back to the government in exchange for a share of the auction proceeds.

The spectrum would be sold at auction to mobile network operators, such as AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, and Sprint Nextel Corp., which are facing what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has termed a “looming spectrum crunch.” The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the auction of broadcast TV spectrum would generate $24.5 billion in revenues between 2012 and 2021.

Under S. 911, some of the money raised through incentive auctions—$12 billion—would go to help defray the costs of building the network dedicated to public safety, the last unfulfilled recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.

Even after compensating broadcasters for participating in incentive auctions, and then allocating $12 billion to build and maintain the network, the bill would still provide between $6 and $10 billion in deficit reduction.

In the House, Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the respective chairmen of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its communications subcommittee, support auctioning the D Block to commercial bidders and using the proceeds to help pay for the building of a public safety broadband network. Upton is a member of the super committee.

“I don't doubt that [Energy and Commerce Republicans] want to help the first responders, but they don't see it the way we do here today,” Eshoo said, responding to a question about resistance to the S. 911 from both Walden and Upton.

“We have been meeting and negotiating for months,” she said. “We're a good team. One area of disagreement is the D Block.”

As chairman of the communications subcommittee, Walden has raised sharp questions about precisely how much spectrum public safety entities need to build a nationwide network. If the D Block is auctioned, rather than allocated, it would also mean more revenue for the General Treasury.