Urgent Matters

DTV delay still an issue for public safety


Yesterday, media outlets throughout the country trumpeted stories that the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday “killed” legislation calling for a four-month delay in the transition to digital television (DTV), which is currently set to occur on Feb. 17—an event that will free valuable 700 MHz spectrum for use by public-safety users and commercial operators.

While the House did not pass the bill, it is far from dead, according to Beltway sources. The House simply failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed for quick passage. Instead, the bill likely is expected to be considered again next under normal rules that require only a simple majority for passage. Since a majority of the House voted for the first bill, passage under the normal rules is expected.

For public safety, the ideal outcome would be that the Feb. 17 transition date remain in place, allowing public-safety agencies to use the spectrum as soon as possible. But it’s clear that a legislation to implement a delay will pass, making the wording of such a law critical, because that can determine the actual impact of the legislation on first-responder networks.

Language in the current proposal provides television stations with the option to make the transition whenever they would want during the four-month period. Thus, stations wanting to save the expense of transmitting two signals—and many do, given the tough economy—may clear the spectrum on Feb. 17, as planned.

With these television stations clearing the spectrum, the public safety licensees would be allowed to use the frequencies immediately, right? Not so fast. The wording in the Senate bill passed last week indicated that public-safety users—even those with licenses already in hand—would have to wait for the FCC to approve their use of the spectrum, ensuring that no interference harm would occur to incumbent users (broadcasters) in the band.

This wording had public-safety officials concerned, as another round of FCC approvals could prevent agencies from using their licensed spectrum as quickly as they would like, even if the local TV broadcasters have vacated the frequencies.

Leaders of three key public-safety organizations—the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, the International Chiefs of Police and the International Association of Fire Chiefs—have written letters to lawmakers asking that this language be changed to let first-responder agencies use the spectrum as soon as TV broadcasters clear it. Beltway sources indicate this language was changed in the revised Senate bill that was passed yesterday and is expected to be considered by the House next week.

For public safety’s sake, hopefully this revamped language will be part any final law that is passed.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


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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