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The Public Safety Alliance, a partnership of groups representing police, fire, and emergency medical workers, May 2 urged Congress to move quickly to pass legislation that would allocate a coveted block of spectrum in the 700 MHz band known as the “D Block” for the building of a nationwide emergency communications network, saying the death of Osama bin Laden should motivate lawmakers to act before the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a statement, the alliance praised the efforts of both the Bush and Obama administrations to hunt down the reputed al Qaeda leader, while calling for the “tools” necessary to effectively respond to emergencies, “both great and small, natural or man-made.”
“The hard work goes on. As the bipartisan co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission recently testified before Congress, there is more hard work for Congress and our federal government to do with the support of the Obama White House, as well as many former Bush administration leaders such as former [Department of Homeland] Secretary Tom Ridge and former [Federal Emergency Management Director] David Paulison,” alliance spokesman Sean Kirkendall said. “Passing current legislation in Congress…before the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 must be a top priority for all of Congress.”
President Obama has expressed strong support for an allocation of the D Block, as has Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Both lawmakers have introduced legislation (S. 28 and H.R. 607) to allocate the spectrum as the first stage in a multi-pronged strategy to construct the nation's first truly interoperable mobile broadband network for emergency first responders.
The president formally endorsed a reallocation of the D Block in remarks delivered to Northern Michigan University ahead of the release of his fiscal year 2012 budget, a reversal in position that has placed the Federal Communications Commission squarely in the middle of a fierce debate within the wireless industry.
The reallocation approach has been endorsed by Verizon Wireless, AT&T Inc., and Motorola, while Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA, eager to bid on so-called “beachfront” spectrum in the 700 MHz band, back the FCC's proposal.
The Public Safety Alliance, which includes the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the National Emergency Management Association, receives indirect financial support from AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and equipment makers Motorola Inc., Alcatel-Lucent SA and Harris Corp.
In the top 100 U.S. markets, Verizon Wireless occupies 34 MHz in the 700 MHz band while AT&T controls 18 MHz. Neither Sprint nor T-Mobile has spectrum in the 700 MHz band.
With an eye toward stimulating competition within the industry, the FCC's National Broadband Plan, released last March, called for auctioning off the D Block to commercial bidders and using the proceeds--estimated to be as much as $4 billion--to help build a public safety broadband network.
FCC officials believe that such a network could be built more cheaply and efficiently using 10 MHz of spectrum that is already allocated to public safety for mobile broadband use, so long as emergency first responders retain priority access on commercial networks like Verizon's and AT&T's during extreme emergencies.
According to the agency, that 10 MHz of spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust provides more than enough capacity to handle communications during day-to-day and severe emergencies, even chemical attacks. But so far, the proposal has run into stiff resistance from public safety officials, who fear their current spectrum holdings are insufficient to handle large-scale disasters.
In the 700 MHz band, public safety entities occupy 24 MHz of spectrum, half of which is allocated for narrowband voice applications, the other half for mobile broadband use.
Critics of the reallocation approach, including Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Communications Subcommittee, have raised concerns over how cash-strapped states and localities together would pay for the construction and operation of a nationwide public-safety broadband network if the FCC reallocates--rather than re-auctions--the D block. The cost to build such a network is estimated at between $12 billion and $16 billion.
The FCC has not indicated whether or when it might auction the D Block to commercial bidders, which is required under the current law.
The FCC has tried before to auction the D Block, without success. In 2008, under Chairman Kevin Martin, the commission put the D Block up for auction with the stipulation that the winning bidder pair the spectrum with the 10 MHz of spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust to build a nationwide mobile broadband network, shared by private companies and a group of public safety organizations. The block failed to attract a winning bidder and the spectrum is now vacant.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks exposed the communications difficulties that police, fire, and other emergency response personnel experience in a crisis, policymakers have struggled to develop a consensus proposal on what to do with the D Block, and how to build and finance a nationwide public safety broadband network.
Earlier this year, President Obama made a $10.7 billion commitment to build a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network in earnest. The funding would come from money raised from voluntary incentive auctions of spectrum: $7 billion to deploy the network; $3.2 billion to offset the budgeted funds the U.S. Treasury would otherwise not receive from an auction of the D block, as proposed by the FCC; and $500 million from a new Wireless Innovation Fund for research and development to ensure the network meets public safety requirements.
Similarly, under Rockefeller's bill, some of the money raised through incentive auctions would go toward building and operating a public safety network.
Charles Dowd, communications chief for the New York Police Department, said in a statement released May 2 that bin Laden's death could prompt Hill action this year.
"The need to remain vigilant and coordinate information-sharing in the wake of this great news underscores the urgency facing Congress to act and pass legislation to assign [the D Block of spectrum] to public safety and send it to the president for his signature, fulfilling the last major recommendation of the 9/11 Commission,” Dowd said.
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