D Block reallocation, broadband network funding are conjoined issues
Public-safety leaders have been focused on — obsessed with — the D Block for the past nine months or so. That’s understandable. They’re only going to get one time at bat and they need to hit a home run. Strike out and the game is over — forever.
But they’re not anywhere near as focused on the next giant piece of this puzzle, which is how to fund the network’s buildout and its continued operation. In fact, nobody seems very interested in this piece at all right now. That confuses me. I understand the importance of securing the D Block. But what good is securing this vital swath of spectrum if you’re not going to have the money to build the network that would ride on it?
Current law prescribes that the D Block — a 10 MHz block of spectrum that was vacated by commercial television broadcasters a couple of years ago — be auctioned to the commercial wireless sector, which believes it needs the airwaves to keep up with the exploding demand for high-bandwidth mobile data services. Public safety wants these airwaves just as badly, in order to pair them with 10 MHz of contiguous spectrum that the sector already holds in the band.
The consensus thinking is that the combined 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum would provide the capacity needed to handle all of the first-responder community’s data needs for years to come. In contrast, most public-safety leaders believe that 10 MHz would be enough for daily operations, but likely would leave first responders short during large-scale, multijurisdictional events.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Dick Mirgon, APCO’s outgoing president, and we spent a lot of time talking about the D Block. Mirgon was integral to the lobbying effort that resulted in multiple pieces of legislation being introduced that would direct the FCC to reallocate the airwaves to public safety. Should that occur, it would be a huge victory for first responders. Mirgon and everyone else who had a hand in this effort deserve to be applauded.
During the interview, I asked Mirgon about funding for the proposed first-responder broadband data network. I essentially was told that the funding piece of the equation would work itself out over time. I hope he’s right — but I don’t think he is. It’s going to take years, even decades, to build out this network. During that time, local economies will rise and fall, as they always have. How can anyone be confident that local governments — or even state governments for that matter — will have the financial wherewithal to see the project through?
In addition, this network is going to take much longer and cost much more to build and operate than anyone anticipates. Bank on it. The scope and complexities of this network will be unprecedented, and that alone ensures that things are not going go as smoothly regarding the deployment of this network as people think. Is it a good idea to count on the notion that local governmental entities somehow always will be able to find the money — as Mirgon suggests they will — particularly if they encounter significant cost overruns?
These are important questions, because if long-term sustainable funding isn’t secured, then significant gaps in this network will occur. That would make it about as effective as a patchwork quilt that’s missing numerous squares.
Public-safety officials are looking at this as a chicken-and-egg debate, because they’re seeing the D Block and 700 MHz broadband network funding as related but separate issues. That is a mistake. I believe that D Block reallocation and network funding are joined at the hip; one is useless without the other. As such, it is imperative that both are addressed at the same time in the legislation that’s being considered on Capitol Hill.
If this doesn’t happen, I fear that the public-safety sector could find itself in the unenviable position of contemplating what might have been.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.