Public safety 700 MHz has come a long way, but more progress is needed
“It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device …”
It was only a half sentence in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night, but the mere mention of the need for public-safety broadband infrastructure in such a high-profile speech speaks volumes about the awareness the administration has for a subject that has been a focal point for the first-responder community during the last year.
Even more telling than Obama’s statement was a conference call that public-safety officials had just hours before the State of the Union with Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. During the call, the administration representatives said that the White House supports reallocation of the 700 MHz D Block to public safety and funding via future spectrum-auction proceeds to help pay for first-responder LTE network deployments.
Compare those commitments to a year ago, when first-responder representatives made their initial orchestrated push on Capitol Hill in an effort to raise awareness among lawmakers about the need for the D Block, which is adjacent to the 10 MHz swath of public-safety broadband spectrum. At the time, FCC officials seemed intent on auctioning the D Block — as current law mandates — as quickly as possible.
“It’s an astonishing turnaround,”said Charles Dowd, deputy chief for New York Police Department.
However, one person who is not surprised by the change in the political winds is Dowd, who said he has been confident that the position of the vast majority of public-safety organizations would gain support in Washington, D.C., if federal officials could be educated on the subject.
In the Senate, public safety has the support of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee that must consider a D Block reallocation bill. Rockefeller and five Democratic co-sponsors reintroduced D Block reallocation legislation this week. In addition, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) last year introduced similar legislation with a slightly different funding mechanism.
Most Beltway sources believe the bigger resistance will come from the House, which is controlled by Republicans, most of which were elected in November while promising to halt big government spending and reduce the federal deficit. On the surface, such a mindset doesn’t seem to mesh with the notion of dedicating $10 billion to $13 billion in future auction proceeds to a new federal program that would help finance public-safety LTE networks.
Many public-safety officials note that the deficit is growing at a rate of roughly $3 billion per day, so dedicating the projected auction proceeds to the U.S. Treasury would represent less than a week’s worth of interest on the deficit. On the other hand, giving first responders access to mobile-broadband applications that can help them do their jobs better and more efficiently promises to make the U.S. safer for decades to come, Dowd said.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think you can afford not to do this,” Dowd said.
It’s a compelling argument, but will it be enough to sway budget-conscious members of Congress on both sides of the aisle? Right now, that’s still in doubt, although the good news is that at least the issue is getting enough attention to be seriously considered.
Hopefully, this increased awareness and the fact that the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is less than eight months away will help public safety make its case and provide a sense of urgency for lawmakers to act.
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