Understand the turf
Public-safety officials are used to having things the way they want them. There’s very good reason for that. Those who serve as police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians encounter things on a daily basis that would make the rest of us cringe, if not crawl into the fetal position. Their commanders rightly do whatever they think is necessary to keep those who put their lives on the line every day as safe as possible.
Understandably, public-safety officials want to ensure that the proposed nationwide broadband network that would operate on 700 MHz spectrum vacated by television broadcasters a couple of years ago is capable of handling all of the advanced, high-bandwidth applications — most notably, video — that are envisioned for this network. They also want to make sure that the network is available when they need it most: during a major incident that demands a multijurisdictional response, particularly one that involves mass casualties.
The way to do this, the public-safety sector reasons, is to reallocate the 10 MHz D Block — which currently is slated for auction to commercial wireless carriers — for first-responder use only. That would give public safety a 20 MHz-wide block of contiguous spectrum, which should be plenty. The problem is that such a reallocation would require new legislation from Congress. Consequently, public-safety officials of all sorts have been putting a full-court-press on federal lawmakers to get this done. And make no mistake about it: public safety carries a very big lobbying stick.
But is it big enough to offset the club being swung by the lobbyists fighting for the commercial-carrier sector, which believes it desperately needs those airwaves to keep up with America’s insatiable appetite for mobile data? And if it is, how aggressively should public safety swing its club?
The latter question recently was posed by Brian Fontes, the CEO of the National Emergency Number Association. As Senior Writer Donny Jackson reported this week, Fontes fears that Capitol Hill increasingly is becoming weary of public safety’s “all or nothing” approach to the D Block, so much so that it could withhold the funding needed to build out the broadband network.
That would be a disaster. Would Congress — and by extension, the FCC — actually wash its hands of this, in a fit of pique, ultimately killing of any hope that public safety has to see this network get built? I don’t know. What I do know is that I would give serious heed to what Fontes is suggesting. I’ve known him for nearly a decade, back to when I was the policy and law writer for Telephony magazine and he was the vice president of federal relations for Cingular Wireless. He knows his way around the Beltway and understands how things get done on Capitol Hill.
Some in public safety undoubtedly will assert that its officials are negotiating in good faith. Maybe they are. But perception has a nasty way of becoming reality, and if public safety is being perceived as inflexible regarding the D Block, then that has to be addressed. I’ve said and written often over the years that the most valuable land on earth is the middle ground, because that is where deals get done. Nowhere is this truer than in our nation’s capital.
Success and failure often are separated by a razor-thin line. It seems as if the public-safety sector is walking that line right now. It should be very careful of its next steps.
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