First responders snipe on 800 MHz interference
First responders — particularly police officers and firefighters — are a very close-knit group, understandably so. When you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone in life-and-death situations protecting people you don’t even know, bonds often are formed that are so strong they will never be broken. Given the nature of the work, those bonds typically extend to all who share the profession.
That’s not to say, however, they can’t be stretched a bit, which is what seems to be happening in the debate over what to do about 800 MHz interference primarily caused by Nextel Communications that plagues first-responder communications nationwide.
A fledgling group called the First Response Coalition has been pushing Congress to pass legislation that would require the FCC to auction the 1.9 GHz spectrum it plans to award Nextel as a quid pro quo for rebanding the 800 MHz airwaves and earmark the funds not only to solve the interference problem but also to jump-start interoperable communications. FCC Chairman Michael Powell also has asked Congress to get involved (see story).
The primary reason is concern that the FCC’s order issued August 6 isn’t legally sustainable, according to Gene Stilp, a coordinator for the coalition and a volunteer firefighter in Dauphin, Pa.
“We definitely believe in rebanding,” Stilp said. “But this has now gone from a technical question to a legal question. We’re trying to offer Congress a way to do something for first responders right now, while avoiding years of [legal] review. We’re not trying to fight with anybody. All we’re trying to do is come up with a backup plan in case the order doesn’t pass legal muster.”
But other first responders wish the coalition — which was formed just 12 weeks ago and is “very small,” by Stilp’s own admission — would just butt out. One of those is Charles Werner, deputy chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department and a member of the International Association Of Fire Chiefs’ communications committee. Werner questions the timing of the coalition’s effort — coming at the 11th hour and 59th minute of the 800 MHz saga — after the IAFC, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials and National Sheriffs’ Association worked for more than two years to broker a deal with Nextel.
In fact, he accused Verizon Wireless of being behind the coalition’s efforts. The carrier has long threatened to litigate any award of the 1.9 GHz spectrum outside an auction. Werner wants to know where such a small organization is getting the money to take out full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal and other major newspapers across the country, conduct a mail campaign targeting public-safety organizations nationwide and execute a mail and fax campaign to Congress.
“You tell me who has that kind of money, and who would have a reason to support them,” Werner said. “As we’ve seen, Verizon will continue to stop at nothing to stop this.”
I asked Stilp directly whether Verizon Wireless has provided financial or legal assistance to the cause. He didn’t want to tell me and tried very hard to avoid doing so. But eventually he conceded that Verizon Wireless has provided some muscle.
“Verizon Wireless is contributing to our efforts, but we welcome contributions from anyone who wants to help,” Stilp said, noting that the coalition also has received support from consumer and public interest groups. “They have contributed financially, but at this point, I can’t tell you how much.” (As of this writing, a Verizon Wireless spokesman said he wasn’t aware that the carrier had provided financial or legal support.)
Beyond the apparent conflict of interest, Werner believes the coalition’s thinking is flawed on a couple of levels. First, introducing the interoperability angle at this point is misguided and counterproductive.
“Interoperability is important, but it won’t mean anything if there’s radio interference,” Werner said. “The ability to talk to another first responder becomes a moot point. There’s an order of priority, and we have to get rid of interference first.”
Werner also questions to what degree interoperability is on Congress’s radar screen at this point.
“We’ve heard from Congress that they’re not interested in replacing all of the radio infrastructure across the country because of the cost,” Werner said. “Funding for interoperability from Congress already has seen a diminishing blow; for example, the FEMA grants are no longer there. So what’s to suggest they would give more money for interoperability?”
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Mea culpa: In last week’s column, I got a couple of facts mixed up. While WLO Radio, the nation’s sole provider of high-frequency ship-to-shore radiotelephone services, does make space available to an amateur radio club consisting of 10 members, it is the Maritime Mobile Service Network and its 68 members scattered about the country who voluntarily monitor the 14.300 MHz frequency in the 20-meter amateur band and field emergency calls from ships at sea. Hopefully this error won’t diminish from the message of the column, which is that amateur radio operators provide invaluable service in times of crisis and should be applauded. I heard from many of them this week, and they seemed genuinely appreciative of the well-deserved kudos.