Urgent Matters

D Block reallocation bill might not be a slam dunk

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There has been a lot of speculation that federal legislation that would reallocate the 700 MHz airwaves known as the D Block to public safety will be on President Obama's desk in time for him to sign it on Sept. 11, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Clearly, there would be some measure of poetic justice in that, even a bit of romance. However, there are some who don't believe it will happen by that magic date — and if it doesn't, it might not happen at all.

I bring this up because of an experience I had during the National Emergency Number Association conference in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. I ran into a politically astute attendee who I know well, who asked me whether I thought the legislation would be enacted. I instinctively answered in the affirmative. In fact, I stated that I thought the reallocation is a slam dunk. Given how far the public-safety sector has come on this matter — visions of Rocky Balboa are dancing in my head as I write this — it seems unthinkable that the D Block won't land in the hands of first responders. This isn't a snowball rolling down the hill; it's an avalanche roaring down the mountain.

What I heard in response startled me at first, but the more I think about it, my friend might have a valid point. I was told that once the Obama administration came out in support of public safety receiving the D Block, it became a political football — something that is not necessarily in the best interests of public safety. The idea is that whatever the president wants, there are those in Congress committed to seeing that he doesn't get it.

Such is the downside of a two-party political system, but the divide between Republicans and Democrats is particularly wide and deep at this juncture, according to Ilona Nickels, a political strategist and Washington insider who spoke during the conference. "They seem determined to take the fight to the end of the cliff on every issue," she said.

Scarier still is what Nickels said later, which clearly gave me the uneasy feeling that this might not be the best time to try getting a bill through Congress that will cost the U.S. Treasury several billion dollars — which is what the D Block reallocation bill will do, because the spectrum won't be allocated to commercial interests, as current law prescribes.

Nickels pointed out that this particular Congress is severely hampered by a lack of funds and the nation's crushing debt, which stands at $14.5 trillion. "There's simply no money to pay for new programs," she said.

Even if there was, this Congress has a Republican majority in the House, a majority that is committed to the idea of cutting federal spending, according to Nickels. This is an attitude that doesn't bode well for legislation that also calls for $10 billion to help pay for the buildout of the proposed nationwide 700 MHz wireless broadband network that the public-safety sector covets.

Complicating matters, from public safety's perspective, is that Congress generally is not a think tank, and its members are disinclined to act on intellectual arguments alone, according to Nickels. This means that the completely logical argument that this network is what public safety needs, and that teenagers should not have better communications devices than those who will be rescuing them should an emergency occur won't be enough to get this legislation off Capitol Hill and into the Oval Office.

"They are not teachers, they are agents. Congress can't just consider the pros and cons of an issue, it has to figure out to pay for the solution," Nickels said. "Legislation is not about the perfect, it is about the possible. Congress does not necessarily concern itself with what needs to be done, but what can be done."

So, whether this legislation ever is enacted hinges, as most things do in Washington, on money. Can Congress be convinced that the $3 billion that a D Block auction theoretically would generate can be foregone? Can it be convinced to pony up $10 billion for the buildout of the network? And let's be realistic, even if they do find the $10 billion, this network is going to cost a lot more than anyone currently thinks — it always does. These are going to be tough arguments to make, given the slow pace of the nation's economic recovery.

Despite the gloom and doom, I still believe that this legislation is going to become law and that public safety will get its network — maybe not this year or in this Congress, but eventually. I suppose that it's because I'm an optimist at heart. It certainly isn't because I'm a romantic.

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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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