Urgent Matters

Capitol Hill nears decision time on spectrum legislation

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In less than eight weeks, the United States will take pause to remember the 10th anniversary of 9/11, one of the most horrific days in the nation's history — a day when terrorist attacks on our soil resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and forever changed public perception about the security of our homeland.

That day's tragic episodes also significantly altered awareness of public-safety communications, as many blamed a lack of operability and interoperability for the deaths of many firefighters. Soon, "interoperability" became a favorite buzzword on Capitol Hill, which provided unprecedented funding levels for first-responder communications and diligently made a concerted effort to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

One of the commission's key recommendations was to allocate more spectrum to public safety, something that hasn't been done to date. Currently, legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate that would reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to public safety and provide at least $10 billion in funding for the buildout of a nationwide broadband network for first responders.

While there are differences regarding the details for implementation, Beltway sources indicate that there are enough votes in the Senate to pass such a bill, and the White House has been outspoken in expressing its support. With this in mind, the fate of D Block appears to rest in the House.

During a subcommittee hearing last week on the subject, opposing bills — one that would reallocate the D Block and another that would auction the spectrum to commercial operators — were introduced and debated. To the subcommittee's credit, the discussion during the hearing generally was focused on substantive positions, not the misleading rhetoric that had been cited during some previous House hearings.

Opponents of D Block reallocation have legitimate concerns about the proposal. In a tight budget year amid public focus on the nation's mounting deficit, it's not the ideal time to forego an auction projected to generate $3 billion and spending another $10 billion on the buildout of a nationwide LTE network for first responders.

But it's the right thing to do. Not only would the passage of such legislation greatly enhance the safety of the nation's public-safety personnel and the citizens they protect, but it make sense in terms of long-term spectrum policy.

Remember, if the D Block is auctioned, guard bands are needed, or interference will be an issue. If guard bands are put in place, only 60% of the spectrum will be usable by a carrier, and 4 MHz of prime airwaves will be grossly underutilized. If the full 10 MHz of the D Block is auctioned, many industry experts say significant costs will be incurred to mitigate interference concerns — some have even projected that these mitigation efforts would nullify much of the revenue that would be realized in the proposed auction.

On the other hand, reallocating the D Block to public safety would provide the first-responder community with an excellent long-term spectral position. In addition to having 20 MHz of contiguous 700 MHz broadband spectrum, public safety eventually would be a position to transition narrowband 700/800 MHz airwaves to broadband use when mission-critical voice over broadband becomes a reality.

Ultimately, this could lead to public safety being able to return some of disparate swaths of spectrum to the government for future auction. Perhaps more important, the strong spectral position should mean that public safety will not have to seek additional spectrum when the FCC clears airwaves for future auctions. As a result, the government can realize the full amount of revenue possible from such clearing efforts in the near future, instead of having to save a portion of the spectrum for first responders.

With the additional D Block spectrum, public safety would have the flexibility to pursue partnerships with critical-infrastructure entities and more aggressively test voice-over-broadband capabilities that could prove vital in the future.

For Congress, the clock is ticking, especially if it wants to take its normal lengthy break during the month of August. Deficit-related issues are the focus on Capitol Hill, and Congress needs to pass a law authorizing the FCC to conduct spectrum auctions again in the future, as such auctions are expected to be a notable revenue-generating component in any new deficit-reduction legislation. Given that the D Block legislation also is supposed to generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury, including D Block reallocation and funding for nationwide network in a deficit-focused bill may be appropriate.

Regardless whether the measures are part of deficit legislation or passed as a separate item, the important thing is that measures are passed to clear the way for the establishment of a nationwide network. If it doesn't happen, lawmakers will have the unenviable task of facing a barrage of questions and commentary from media and voters who will ask why the federal government could not address a key 9/11 Commission recommendation a full decade after the tragic terrorist attacks.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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