Since the election of President Barack Obama almost 10 months ago, communications policy on significant issues in the United States has been stagnated, to a large degree. With the FCC shifting from a Republican majority under the previous administration to a Democratic majority, leaders in Congress asked the agency to focus only on matters related to the digital-television transition until the political transformation was complete.

Less than a month ago, the final puzzle piece was put in place with Republican Meredith Attwell Baker and Democrat Mignon Clyburn being sworn in to fill the final two seats on a commission that will be led by Democratic Chairman Julius Genachowski, who sailed through the Senate confirmation process several weeks earlier amid bipartisan plaudits regarding his qualifications. With a full commission and key staff in place, the FCC appears poised to tackle important communications issues, several of which impact public safety.

“We're certainly glad the commission is back at full strength,” said Robert Gurss, director of legal and government affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

New atmosphere

Already, several Beltway sources have noted a decidedly different environment within the FCC. The previous permanent chairman, Republican Kevin Martin, was criticized heavily in a Democratic congressional report that alleged Martin used a heavy-handed management style and suppressed information that did not align with his perspective on issues.

Whether these allegations were true has been a matter of considerable debate, with supporters and critics taking opposing sides. However, Genachowski will take a much different approach, said Reed Hundt, a former Democratic FCC chairman and an advisor to the Obama campaign.

“Already, the chairman has set a new tone,” Hundt said. “It consists of first, ‘I want to know about the facts and not the politics.’ They've created a number of processes to examine the data to have the decision-making really be based on the facts, not the politics — and certainly not on personalities.

“That's quite a different tone. For the last eight years, it's been personal favoritism and political bias that has ruled. Those days are over.”

Indeed, the fact-based mantra was a point of emphasis noted during last month's APCO conference by several FCC officials, including Jamie Barnett, the new chief of the public safety and homeland security bureau (PSHSB).

“I think that you'll find that we're going to be data-driven,” Barnett said during an APCO regulatory session. “We need hard information — fact-based and open and transparent to you as never before. We feel like that's how we can serve you best.”

While Republican-led FCCs traditionally have been characterized as siding with large incumbent network providers, Democratic FCCs historically have leaned toward policies designed to encourage greater competition in the communications marketplace. Hundt described applications that ride on broadband networks as “critical to the country,” and noted that Genachowski already has laid out a broad agenda for “democracy on the Internet.”

One aspect that many FCC observers believe is necessary is quicker decisions from the commission. Many criticized Martin for creating a logjam on the release of even seemingly routine items by insisting that they come through his office. Most interviewees for this article believe that approach is fine, but the execution should have been more efficient.

“That's normal for any business,” said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) technology committee. “The difference is that the chairman basically bottled it up. We're hoping that this chairman will work closer with the other commissioners.”

Genachowski has taken steps to review FCC processes and has exchanged correspondence with fellow commissioner Robert McDowell on proposed reform ideas.

“I like the fact that [Genachowski is] going inside and saying, ‘We're broke, and we have to fix this,’” said mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold. “That's one of the best things I've ever heard.

“There are a lot of very, very good and very talented people at the FCC. If they get listened to, then it will be positive. If all it is is a bunch of stuff that the FCC commissioners take under advisement and don't take to heart, then it's a wasted effort.”

“I think it's highly conceivable that the 700 MHz waiver requests will be dealt with,” he said. “I can't tell you how that's going to come out, but now we're starting to see some waivers that don't look the same. At some level, that is something that could get addressed.”

Priority 1: Broadband

Certainly the FCC's first order of business will be to address the nation's broadband issues. Not only is broadband communications a priority for the Obama administration, Congress has mandated that the FCC submit a broadband plan by February. The FCC is in the process of conducting a series of broadband workshops addressing various sectors, with public safety being the focus of a workshop scheduled to be held last month.

Fortunately for public safety, this focus on broadband dovetails nicely with the biggest communication issues for the first-responder community: 700 MHz broadband and the D Block spectrum.

Almost two years ago, the FCC pursued a plan to develop a nationwide wireless broadband network via a public-private partnership between the PSST — the nationwide licensee for public safety's 700 MHz broadband spectrum — and the winner of the commercial D Block auction. However, the auction conducted in early 2008 did not attract a qualified bidder.

“The D Block was supposed to be the public-safety network of choice, and what happened? The FCC screwed it up so badly that it was the only auction in the history of the FCC that completely failed,” said Hundt, who was part of Frontline Wireless, a startup WiMAX provider that pulled out of the auction just weeks before bidding began. “Frankly, first responders should have been marching on Washington. People have been put at risk because this didn't happen.”

A subsequent FCC effort to establish new D Block rules generated a proposed rulemaking that many in public safety believed would result in a network that would differ only slightly from commercial networks that promise to be available in the band. But the resulting proposed order was never voted on during Martin's tenure.

Over the past several months, the public-safety community has tried to move the ball forward by reaching consensus in its desire to have LTE designated as a nationwide technology standard and in its belief that first-responder broadband network requirements need to be outlined for the FCC.

“The point is, somebody has to go back and start some kind of action to get this thing moving again,” McEwen said. “And one of the ways is to put out a further notice of proposed rulemaking that is more reflective of this commission.”

In addition, most public-safety organizations favor a reallocation of the D Block spectrum to public safety, which would require an act of Congress.

“Obviously, we would like Congress to take the D Block off the auction block, but a lot of the issues could be discussed and resolved in the meantime without that,” McEwen said. “There's no need to wait for [Congress] to do everything.

For the FCC and Congress, a potential conflict noted by several Beltway insiders is that Democrats would like to see greater competition in the 700 MHz arena — several party members were outspoken in expressing their disappointment that AT&T and Verizon bought most of the prime spectrum in the band — and the development of a public-safety broadband network. If a public-private partnership cannot be forged to meet both of these goals successfully, federal leaders may have to choose one path at the expense of the other, according to sources.

Although public safety has indicated its desire to receive the D Block license, Hundt said the first-responder community's biggest problem is funding, so the private sector still needs to participate.

“Where do you think the money is going to come from?” Hundt said. “Do you want police chiefs to be in the business of charging for spectrum, or do you want a business to run it? Do you want a police chief to be running a business or catching bad guys?

“The starting point is that a business needs to run the business, and there needs to be a sharing of the assets. Otherwise, public safety gets nothing. And we want them to get everything — we want them to get a great deal.”

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) also has expressed concern about sustainable funding models, proposing greater private-sector participation and the possibility of using Universal Service Fund money to help pay for deployment and maintenance of the networks. In addition, the organization is hopeful that the new FCC will expand the scope of the public-safety broadband debate, said Patrick Halley, NENA's government affairs director.

“When you think of the FCC and broadband, you think of 700 MHz/D Block/first-responder broadband — it's critical, and we care a lot about that,” he said. “But we need to go beyond that. We need to look at ensuring that every 911 center and every organization involved in emergency response has access to broadband — not just for the individual responders but for organizations to communicate with themselves.”

Meanwhile, several cities, counties and states have filed waiver requests with the FCC that would allow the early buildout of broadband wireless networks on spectrum currently licensed to the PSST. The commission is seeking comments on the proposals.

Halley said he believes the FCC will not take broad-based action on a proposed public-safety broadband network until the overall national broadband plan recommendations are solidified, but action on the waiver requests could come sooner.

“I think it's highly conceivable that the 700 MHz waiver requests will be dealt with,” he said. “I can't tell you how that's going to come out, but now we're starting to see some waivers that don't look the same. At some level, that is something that could get addressed.”

Beyond broadband

Of course, there are communications issues facing public safety other than 700 MHz broadband, some of which can be addressed quickly. Both Halley and Gurss said they believe the FCC has enough of a record regarding non-initialized phones dialing 911 and 911 wireless location to be able to issue orders on those topics in the near future.

In addition, the first-responder community has sought clarity regarding rules for narrowbanding of networks operating below 512 MHz, Gurss said.

“A main purpose of it would be to remind people that this is a serious requirement, because it's not very far off at this point,” he said.

In addition, PSHSB's David Furth called an 800 MHz treaty with Mexico “the highest remaining priority” for completing the massive rebanding project. However, that is not an item that can be controlled entirely by the FCC, because the state departments for both countries ultimately are charged with reaching an agreement on the matter.

Genachowski said the FCC would not delay addressing other items while the broadband plan recommendations are being formulated, but Halley said it may not be practical for the agency to tackle other controversial issues during this time period.

“The broadband plan, which affects every bureau, is going to be a huge focus from now until February,” he said. “That doesn't mean they're not going to get other stuff done, but that's going to be — by far — the main focus of the commission.”

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