Last week, representatives of the FCC and public safety were on talk radio regarding the proposed 700 MHz public-safety broadband network, and the segment proved to be extremely enlightening.

No, the participants did not unlock a resolution to the much-debated issue. And, for those who have been following the matter closely, little or no substantive new information was provided. But the talk-radio show highlighted a real problem for both the FCC and public safety regarding the proposed network: this issue doesn’t lend itself well to debate in a society that has become accustomed to making decisions based on sound bytes and talking points.

Indeed, even after more than 30 minutes of questions to and answers from Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC’s public safety and homeland security, and Charles Dowd, deputy chief with the New York Police Department, I doubt the average listener fully understood the debate, much less choose a side.

This isn’t a knock against the structure of the Washington, D.C.,–based show or any of the participants. Quite the contrary, host Kojo Nnamdi was well-prepared and asked appropriate, balanced questions. Barnett and Dowd certainly know their stuff from both sides of the issue, and Amy Schatz— a Wall Street Journal reporter who also participated in the segment — offered some excellent insights about the political and financial realities surrounding the matter.

Despite the efforts of these four individuals, it’s questionable whether the D Block debate can resonate with voters who have no idea what radio frequency their devices — much less public-safety communication equipment — operate on and, frankly, don’t care. My bet is that most people who see 700 MHz associate the term only with the slower processing speeds of computers years ago.

Similarly, the funding aspects of the debate also are difficult to comprehend for someone who doesn’t follow the issue. Cost estimates were mentioned, but no one was able to provide details to support their positions why one approach is better — or even different — than the other.

What listeners could glean from the radio segment is that the FCC (Barnett) and public safety (Dowd) were not on the same page on these items. Both reiterated long-held views, with Barnett saying that public safety has enough spectrum and that only the FCC has provided a viable cost model, and Dowd contending that public safety needs the D Block and has a legitimate plan to pay for the network if Congress reallocates the spectrum.

However, there wasn’t an opportunity to really delve into the nuances of the significance of the D Block as adjacent spectrum to the airwaves currently held by the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, public safety’s projected usage requirements or why auctioning the D Block — compared to other spectrum — is critical to realizing the funding goals established by the FCC.
Moreover, a caller identifying himself as a rural fire chief in Virginia questioned whether a nationwide public-safety broadband network is really necessary at all.

My concern is that this issue has become so complicated that even a 30-minute segment — a large chunk of time in the media — is not nearly enough to cover all aspects of the debate surrounding the public-safety broadband network. I’ve seen the same phenomena at trade shows, where hour-and-a-half sessions are just getting to the “good part” of the debate when they are forced to end due to time constraints.

The question is whether members of Congress — and the voters they represent — who must make the ultimate spectrum and funding decisions will be willing to sit and listen long enough to make informed decisions on this important topic. If they only have 30 minutes to deal with it and hear the FCC and public safety continue to disagree, they may opt to devote their time on myriad other matters that may impact their re-election efforts more.

With the notable exception of the D Block auction or reallocation, the FCC and public safety are largely in agreement. While the debate over the spectrum certainly will continue, both sides need to emphasize their agreement that an interoperable public-safety broadband network should be viewed by Congress as a national priority.

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