Fontes: Hill staffers say battle over D Block could cost public safety funding
Staffers on Capitol Hill have indicated that public-safety organizations’ continued fight for 700 MHz D Block spectrum could result in first responders not only losing the desired extra 10 MHz of airwaves but also any hope of funding needed to build and maintain the much-debated proposed broadband network, according to Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).
Fontes made this statement on Friday afternoon, the day after a House subcommittee conducted a hearing regarding draft legislation proposing $11 billion in funding for public safety to build a nationwide broadband wireless network as proposed by the FCC on 10 MHz of spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). A consensus of public-safety organizations have indicated that the D Block spectrum also is needed to provide first responders with airwaves needed to serve future needs.
“I got off the phone with a key staffer on the Hill,” Fontes said. “Some of the public-safety organizations are still intransient that it’s got to be the D Block. The bottom line of it was, ‘Well, if they are that intransient, then we’ll just walk away from the legislation.’
“That means they will not get the D Block and they will not get funding — the D Block will continue to be auctioned off and they will be no funding. So they will get absolutely nothing out of it.”
Fontes said he has heard similar sentiments from other key staffers on Capitol Hill. Multiple Beltway sources have indicated that federal officials are becoming increasingly frustrated with public safety’s focus on reallocation of the D Block, which is slated to be auctioned to commercial carriers during the first half of next year.
“It sounds pretty clear that, if these folks won’t sit down at the negotiating table and talk to these people [on Capitol Hill], they really don’t care,” Fontes said. “They’re not going to waste a lot of their time when public safety opposes them, which means the commission’s free to auction it off, because it’s under law.”
Many public-safety officials question whether Congress would be willing to provide the funding for the network as proposed by the FCC. Getting the draft legislation through the House and Senate promises to be difficult in a tight budget year, and the legislation only authorizes the proposed funding. Public-safety representatives are wary of such language, as $1.25 billion in 911 funding was authorized by Congress in 2004, but only $43 million was ever appropriated in five years.
Chris Moore, chairman of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCC) spectrum working group, said he does not believe Congress would dismiss efforts to provide funding for the proposed public-safety network based on first responders’ efforts to seek D Block reallocation.
“I think Congress understands how important it is, so I don’t think anybody’s going to walk away from the issue — the issue’s too critical,” Moore said. “Everybody acknowledges that we need to have a national public-safety broadband network. There’s just different vision on how to get there. … I think everybody understands that it’s a noble and necessary effort, so it would be terribly disappointing if Congress were to walk away from it.”
While Beltway source indicate that FCC and Capitol Hill officials believe public safety is being stubborn in continuing to fight for the D Block, first-responder representatives have expressed similar opinions about federal organizations. Several public-safety official have expressed dismay that no public-safety practitioners were part of a recent briefing of Capitol Hill staffers on the subject and that only one public-safety practitioner — Charles Dowd, deputy chief in the New York Police Department — was among the eight panelists at the House subcommittee hearing last week.
“We have gone above and beyond the call of duty to explain our position and to justify our position,” San Jose (Calif.) Police Chief Robert Davis said during a press teleconference after Thursday’s hearing. “They are not on our frequency; they are not listening. Public safety is telling [federal officials] very loudly and very clearly …, ‘This is what we need.’ If they tell us that we’re wrong or that they have other suggestions, what they’re telling us is that they’re not listening.