Congress begins movement on public-safety network legislation
As mentioned in a column in this space two days ago, a key to making the FCC’s planned implementation of a public-safety broadband network a reality will be quick, decisive action by the FCC, Congress and public safety. Today, federal lawmakers made a quick first step that indicates Capitol Hill might be up to the task.
During a House subcommittee hearing on the FCC’s national broadband plan, two key lawmakers — Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House energy and commerce committee — said they are working together to draft legislation that would appropriate most, if not all, proceeds from the commercial D Block auction to help pay for the proposed nationwide, broadband wireless network for first responders.
The D Block auction certainly won’t attract a bid large enough to fund the entire $6.5 billion grant program the FCC has recommended to pay for the deployment of the public-safety broadband network. However, if largely unencumbered, the spectrum could generate one-third of the total upfront costs needed for the network buildout, according to industry analysts.
Of course, whether commercial carriers believe an obligation to let public safety roam on their networks with priority access is an encumbrance on the spectrum will have a big impact on how much they are willing to bid for the spectrum, but that’s a column for another day. The important thing is that Congress apparently is prepared to introduce legislation that considers only funding for the public-safety broadband network.
Such legislation would be a huge step in the right direction. If proposed as an independent bill, funding of a public-safety network to address the much-discussed interoperability issues has a reasonable chance of securing bipartisan support in both houses, if public-safety organizations voice support for the FCC plan. No elected official wants to be on record as opposing public safety.
However, if the funding proposal is included in a bill that addresses more controversial aspects of the FCC’s national broadband plan — for instance, potential reclamation of spectrum from TV broadcasters and possible reclassification of broadband that could expose it to greater regulation — the plan for the public-safety network likely would be undermined. Even if such a comprehensive measure was passed, it probably would take so long that the window of opportunity to build the public-safety network while carriers build their 4G networks likely would be closed.
Missing this window of opportunity would result in doubling the cost of the network deployment. Instead of being able to get the job done for $6.5 billion, the network buildout would require $13 billion — a figure Congress is much less likely to fund.
Of course, expressing intent to draft funding legislation is a far cry from actually introducing it and getting it approved/appropriated through the always-difficult political process on Capitol Hill. However, just one week after the broadband plan was released, this is about as much as public-safety officials could have hoped to hear from Congress on the all-important funding question.
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