Public-safety entities wanting to apply for $1 billion in federal interoperability grants will get their opportunity during a three-month period that begins this month, but proposals must be submitted to states, not the national agencies charged with overseeing the program.

Congress last year established the interoperability funding program using anticipated proceeds from the 700 MHz auction and mandated that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) allocate the $1 billion by Sept. 30. To meet this statutory deadline, NTIA will dedicate a portion of the money to each of the 50 states according to a formula that will be released with grant guidance in mid-July (see timeline), said Meredith Baker, deputy assistant secretary for NTIA.

“We will be granting to the states, which will then be granting to the public-safety agencies,” Baker said. “It's up to the states to determine how best to spend the money in their state.”

As a result, public-safety entities wanting to secure grant funds must submit proposals to the agency administering the funds in their states. All state plans must be multi-jurisdictional in nature and address interoperability gaps identified by the state or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and all solutions must be able to operate with 700 MHz systems, Baker said.

“It doesn't have to operate within 700 MHz, but your investment has to speak to the interoperability with the 700 MHz spectrum — that's statutory,” she said. “It could be an IP overlay or a gateway.”

After states submit their plans by Nov. 1, NTIA and the DHS will review the applications for approval. Grant money should be available to spend on the initiatives by the end of the first quarter of 2008, Baker said.

She emphasized that NTIA would not dictate a particular technology or approach for interoperability solutions. In addition, NTIA officials also have expressed a willingness to consider solutions that address more than traditional radio interoperability for first responders.

Thomas Hardy, an official in NTIA's emergency planning and safety division, said during a session at the annual National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference in Charlotte last month that public-safety answering points (PSAPs) would be eligible for the $1 billion funding program.

“The objective here is to help states use the 700 MHz spectrum between and among various public-safety entities,” Hardy said. “One of those public-safety entities should be 911.”

While most NENA officials and attendees welcomed the notion, other public-safety representatives expressed concern that money thought to be earmarked for radio interoperability could be diverted to other purposes.

“I'm a strong advocate for getting additional money for 911 purposes — it is an important public-safety goal that has been underfunded and needs additional funding,” said Harlin McEwen, speaking on behalf of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Sheriffs Association. “But we do not believe it should be taken from the interoperability money because that's like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

APCO President Wanda McCarley outlined the differences she perceives between the notions of interoperability held by her organization and NENA.

“We work closely with NENA, and we agree on stuff, and we disagree on stuff; this is one we disagree on,” said McCarley, who is the 911 director in Tarrant County, Texas. “My definition of interoperability is the response to the call for assistance — interoperability in the response. I think [NENA's] definition of interoperability is interoperability that includes the public's communication with public safety.

“I believe that interoperability applies to public safety, not the public's access to public safety — that's a whole different interoperability question tied to the 911 network.”

Baker said NTIA would not limit which entities would be eligible to receive the grant money, if they met the grant-guidance criteria.

“PSAPs, in theory, could be eligible, but they have to be part of a larger, multi-jurisdictional, multi-disciplined investment plan,” she said.

If PSAPs are not able to secure funds through the interoperability grant program, they may be able to get financial aid elsewhere in the near future. Patrick Halley, NENA's government affairs director, expressed optimism that PSAPs will be able to begin applying for long-awaited grant money promised by Congress under the Enhance 911 Act of 2004. While the legislation authorized $1.25 billion to upgrade PSAPs nationwide to Phase II wireless E911, no money has been appropriated to date.

That could change soon, as legislative proposals call for $42 million in funding for the next fiscal year and another bill would let NTIA distribute immediately the $43.5 million from the 700 MHz auction earmarked for PSAP upgrades, Halley said. Perhaps more important, the budget authored by President George W. Bush includes money to support the creation of a national 911 office, which should help the appropriations process.

“I think we're going to see money come this time,” Halley said.

CURRENT INTEROPERABILITY FUNDING TIMELINE

May-June: Initial review of grant guidance package and incorporate input

Mid-August: Receive states' and territories' applications and narratives

November 1: Receive states' and territories' statewide plans and investment justifications

June-July: Review and clearance of grant guidance

September: Review states' and territories' applications and narratives and award funds by Sept. 28

Source: NTIA