As many political analysts expected, Tuesday’s elections resulted in a significant swing in the balance of power on Capitol Hill, with Republicans earning a clear majority in the U.S. House of Representatives — a development that could be beneficial to public-safety organizations advocating that the D Block be reallocated for first-responder use instead of being auctioned to commercial operators, as current law dictates.

In the Senate, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) all introduced D Block legislation in the last few months. Rockefeller likely will remain chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

In the House, about 80 members agreed to co-sponsor a bill that would reallocate the D Block to public safety, but Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) — the chairman of the key committee and subcommittee that would consider the legislation — were outspoken in their desire to see the spectrum auctioned to spur greater competition in the wireless arena. However, after Tuesday, Waxman will be in the minority party and lose his chairmanship of the House Commerce Committee, while Boucher failed to be re-elected.

On paper, this should be an encouraging sign for D Block reallocation. Of course, nothing is ever simple in Washington, D.C. Public-safety organizations will need to work hard to educate about 90 new federal lawmakers about the D Block issue at a time when their attentions will be diverted to multiple other high-profile issues, not to mention establishing new staff offices.

A potential problem is that many of these Capitol Hill freshmen were elected on Tuesday after running campaigns that promised to halt deficit spending. With this in mind, getting them to support Congress providing $10 billion to $16 billion on a project — the amount the FCC has said is needed for 700 MHz broadband networks — could be a difficult sell.

Richard Mirgon, former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, acknowledged the concern but said it is important that public-safety officials talk about D Block reallocation and associated funding from the perspective of national security, not as another spending bill.

“This is a national-security issue; this is not an earmark, nor is it a gift to public safety,” Mirgon said. “This is an investment in all of America’s future. Funding a nationwide, broadband network is not that different from funding the military or border security or any of the other issues that impact the security of the nation.
“Not only do we have to shape it that way; that is the truth.”

Hopefully, it’s a message that will resonate on Capitol Hill in the near future. There is a need for urgency on the matter, because I doubt that any federal officials want Sept. 11, 2011 — the 10th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in the U.S. — to arrive without a clear plan and funding for an interoperable broadband network for first responders in place.

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