Public safety’s broadband challenges: Spectrum, money, users
With the new Congress convening this week, public-safety representatives are poised to make a significant political push in an effort to have federal lawmakers pass legislation to encourage successful deployments of 700 MHz public-safety LTE networks as quickly as possible.
To date, most of the attention has been focused on having the 700 MHz D Block — currently slated for commercial auction under existing law — reallocated to public safety, thereby giving public safety 20 MHz of broadband spectrum nationwide instead of the current 10 MHz in the band dedicated to first responders.
At this time last year, public safety’s requests for such a reallocation appeared to be falling on deaf ears, but a mid-year shift in political momentum resulted in multiple legislative proposals that called for D Block reallocation, most notably one from Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. None of bills even reached a vote at the committee level, but the actions were enough that the FCC decided not to pursue auction rules in 2010.
Revamped D Block legislation is expected to be introduced quickly in both the House and the Senate, with significant co-sponsors supporting each. This should be more than enough to get consideration in the appropriate committees, but it will not be enough to guarantee passage.
That’s because many members of Congress — particularly Republicans who control the House — won their elections based on promises to halt big government spending. Most believe the federal government needs to make at least $10 billion available to ensure that 700 MHz broadband networks are deployed throughout the nation, not just in high-population markets.
Using Rockefeller’s strategy of funding with anticipated proceeds from future auctions would ease the immediate budgetary concerns, but dedicating that kind of money could be perceived as a reversal of a campaign promise, even if it addresses an issue as important as public-safety communications.
Making such a financial commitment is even tougher for lawmakers if only traditional public safety — police, fire and EMS — uses the networks, because it would benefit a very limited segment. Many officials have expressed support for a more expanded user base that would allow users such as hospitals, utilities and transit authorities to also use the networks, which would improve economies of scale and potentially provide additional funding sources.
In my discussions with Beltway sources, it appears that such a policy change realistically has to be mandated by Congress, not the FCC. And, while many public-safety officials are willing to share capacity with non-traditional partners, the language would be monitored closely to ensure that first-responder needs are prioritized. On the other side of the coin, carriers also would be monitoring such proposals closely, because they do not want to lose too many high-revenue enterprise customers.
Striking such a delicate balance will be challenging, to say the least. Hopefully, it can be achieved, because no one —lawmakers, public safety nor citizenry — wants to see the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks arrive in nine months with no clear path to resolving the first-responders communications issues that were noted during that episode.
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