The nation’s most important 3 million-plus men and women got shortchanged, again, this time by the FCC’s National Broadband Plan presented to Congress last month. The attacks of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina brought the issue of first-responder communications into the news in a big way, when the public learned for the first time that first responders do not have the ability to talk to other agencies over their radios.

The FCC tried to fix this problem in July 2007 by allocating 20 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band for a public-safety broadband network that would be interoperable. Naively, it believed a commercial enterprise would buy 10 MHz of the spectrum at an auction and then invest in a multibillion-dollar buildout of the network. That shortsighted plan was a colossal failure and the 10 MHz never was auctioned.

In the aftermath of the auction failure, public-safety organizations joined together as one voice to convince the FCC to allocate this remaining sliver of spectrum directly to public safety to provide the full bandwidth they need and not to re-auction it. They provided technical documentation showing their long-term needs cannot be met with the limited 10 MHz of spectrum that they have today, and that they require the full 20 MHz of spectrum the FCC originally planned. Detailed analyses — supported by commercial broadband providers, other government agencies and industry experts — were provided to the FCC to prove that today’s allocation is not enough spectrum over the long term to operate in urban areas on a day-to-day basis, let alone during a major incident. Public safety received support for this contention from the largest wireless operators, Attorney General Eric Holder and some members of Congress.

The FCC chose to ignore the facts, and with a resounding slap to public safety’s face, recommended to Congress that it not only re-auction the D Block, but this time with only an option for the winning bidder to partner with public safety to build a network — instead of requiring such a partnership.

The commission further recommended that public safety use commercial services to augment its spectrum. These recommendations clearly demonstrate that the FCC is not in touch with public safety’s needs. Commercial services always have been available to public safety, but the FCC — as usual — misses the point: which is that public safety should in no way have to compete with consumers’ cell phones during an incident.

The worst part of all of this is that the FCC knows public safety needs more spectrum, but it has decided to let future administrations deal with the problem. An FCC blog posting on March 15 admitted that “there are still some issues that need to be worked out, such as whether the 10 MHz of spectrum currently dedicated to public safety is sufficient to meet its needs.” This means that the FCC anticipates allocating to public safety at some later time some of the 500 MHz that it plans on “finding” and auctioning over the next 10 years.

The implications of this short-sighted approach are huge. The FCC is throwing away an opportunity for public safety to have 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum it sorely needs in favor of the short-term benefit of auctioning 10 MHz to a commercial bidder. What this means to you and me as taxpayers is that we will have to pay for brand new cell sites, PDAs, laptops, radios and other mobile devices that would let first responders access the commercial entity’s non-contiguous spectrum. The FCC, in the National Broadband Plan, told Congress that it should budget about $6.5 billion for the capital expenditures associated with this network buildout. The FCC needs to think again. Given its current approach, it will take more like $13 billion over the long haul to get this network up and running.

It would be better for all of us if Congress and the FCC realized this problem can be solved now, without much work on anyone’s part. Congress simply would have to authorize that the D Block be removed from the auction pool and, hopefully, pass legislation to help fund public-safety networks that would be built regionally, rather than nationally — at greatly reduced costs. This would solve the problem for today and into tomorrow, and would equip our public-safety community with the spectrum it desperately needs.

So it appears that the FCC is determined, once again, to take a short-term approach to a long-term problem. The men and woman in public safety are dedicated to saving lives and property every day of the year. It is time they had a network that offers the same broadband technology we as consumers enjoy every day on our smart phones and mobile laptops. It is time to think long-term.

Andrew M. Seybold heads Andrew Seybold Inc., which provides consulting, educational and publishing services. For more information, visit www.andrewseybold.com.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.