The past 12 months have been tumultuous for the public-safety-communications sector, with one issue looming larger than all other issues combined: the battle over the D Block, the 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band that both first responders and the commercial wireless sector covet.

Dick Mirgon, the outgoing president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, has been on the front lines of this battle for months. Urgent Communications chatted with him during APCO’s annual conference in Houston. The following is a snippet of that conversation.

What did you hope to see accomplished during your term as APCO president?
There was a lot on the to-do list 12 months ago. There was some 700 [MHz] work, there was a lot of outreach stuff, we knew that we needed to finish up cellular Phase 2 accuracy, and we knew that rebanding and narrowbanding were still out there. So we pushed on all of those items, and finished the Phase 2 agreements a couple of months ago. But shortly after the first of the year, the D Block became a critical issue.

What happened to make the D Block a critical issue?
In December, people were telling us that we had no chance of getting a bill, that we were asking for the wrong thing, and that we should be negotiating. The problem at the time was that there didn’t seem to be any room for negotiation. The FCC, when it came out with its broadband plan, said that this was an unencumbered auction and that public safety could buy extra spectrum down the road as it sees fit, but that wasn’t going to get us the 20 MHz that we knew we needed. This became a monumental issue and a huge focus for APCO — probably the biggest in several decades.

Did that detract from the other things you were trying to accomplish?
It became pretty all-consuming for me and the staff, but there was a lot of teamwork that came into play. Bill [Carrow] picked up a lot of things, and other directors picked up projects and tackled other issues.

How surprised were you when you learned that members of Congress had drafted legislation that would direct the FCC to reallocate the D Block to public safety?

Thrilled is the word I would use. But to answer your question, I was a little surprised, but I always felt in my gut that it was the right issue at the right time. And I felt that if we could get to them and educate them as to why we need this spectrum, we could get there. I wouldn’t have taken APCO down this path, which required a lot of resources, if I didn’t think it was possible. I saw a goal that was achievable.

So, how was this achieved? Was it just that the message ultimately was so resolute that they couldn’t deny it? Or did you just finally get to the right person or persons?
The thing about political issues is that to win them you have to have clarity of purpose and the support team to make it happen. In this case, the clarity of purpose was so apparent. And things started to happen after we started talking with groups like the Major Cities Chiefs and the IACP. They were the people to move this. We might be the technical experts, but there’s something about a man or woman in uniform in D.C.

Was there a tipping point that you can recall where you walked of the room thinking, “Hey, we’ve got a shot at this?”
There were two very clear points. The first was when Peter King [R-N.Y., ranking member of Homeland Security Committee] put his bill out there, we did what everybody said couldn’t be done—and that was, get a bill. The list of naysayers was long. The second was when we sat with Sen. [Jay] Rockefeller [D-W.Va.] and he said to us, “Folks, I’m going to help you out. I believe you need the D Block and you’ve got my support, and we’re going to make it happen.” That happened on the same day that [Sen. Joseph] Lieberman [I-Conn.] and [Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.] dropped their bill. That was the pinnacle of the last seven months.

How do you think all of this happened? Was it because public safety finally found a unified voice on the issue?
There were a lot of people on Capitol Hill who worked very hard to understand this issue from all sides, including the FCC’s perspective, and in the end they just came to believe that ours was the greater cause. I’m talking about congressional staffers who were able to educate their bosses.

Public safety seems to be more focused on securing the D Block than it is in identifying a funding mechanism to build and operate the network. Is that a mistake?
At its core, we build systems without federal money. Look at all of the different systems out there and the totality of money that public safety spends on all of these disparate systems that are not interoperable. If you could provide the technology and the requirement that that’s where they have to go, you could redirect those billions of dollars to a system that is inherently interoperable. That said, absent other money, it will happen — but it will take a long time to happen. The primer of the pump to get it done sooner is the federal money. But the horsepower that will do the pumping will come from the ability of local governments to create ongoing revenue sources. There are plenty of options for funding — and let’s not rule out state and local taxes — but there’s only one option for a D Block.

Is it feasible in this economic climate to think new taxes could be imposed to support this network?
We realize that the economy is going to be tough for the next couple of years. But even now local governments are imposing new taxes to make up lost revenues and to stimulate their economies. In a normal year, there are sufficient taxes to support local government. In two to three years, you’re going to see excess revenue in local government that can be used for buildouts, because they’ve increased the tax rate, the economy has recovered and spending has come back. I’ve been in local government management for 30 years and we’ve seen this before. Look at Orange County [Calif.]. It filed for bankruptcy and it’s doing very well today. [Ed.: Orange County filed bankruptcy in December 1994, after suffering investment losses of about $1.5 billion, and remerged six months later. At the time it was the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.]

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