Public safety should not panic over UHF clause in King bill — yet
As public-safety officials tirelessly pursue legislation that would reallocate the 700 MHz D Block for first-responder use, one of its biggest allies has been Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who last year was the first to introduce a bill that would put the controversial D Block under the control of public safety — at a time when all signals from the administration and the FCC indicated the spectrum would be auctioned to commercial operators.
By the end of the 2010, King had about 80 co-sponsors in the House, and influential senators like Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) had proposed their own bills. Today, the push to reallocate the D Block to public safety clearly has gathered significant momentum. Many Beltway sources indicate that the primary question now is not whether public safety will get the D Block, but whether the final legislation includes enough money to help make the public safety’s broadband dream a reality.
This year, King again has proposed legislation that would reallocate the D Block to public safety, but it also includes a clause that has raised more than a few eyebrows in the first-responder community:
“Not later than 8 years after the date of enactment of the Act, each public safety entities shall end their use of radio spectrum above 420 megahertz and below 512 megahertz and begin to use alternative radio spectrum licensed to public safety services in the 700 megahertz and 800 megahertz bands.”
Such language is understandably concerning to public-safety entities operating LMR systems on these UHF channels, particularly since many of them are in the process of spending a bunch of money on those systems to meet the FCC’s narrowbanding deadline of Jan. 1, 2013.
After all, many entities paying for the unfunded narrowbanding mandate have taken solace in the notion that, after meeting the deadline and upgrading their systems, they should be able to get at least 10 to 15 years of use from their LMR systems before having to make additional significant capital investments to their LMR infrastructure. Obviously, the language in the King bill — if passed and enforced to the letter of the law — could mess up amortization tables for these public-safety entities throughout the country.
Of course, we are long way from that point. Remember, this bill has not even been considered by a House committee yet, so no one really knows whether the UHF clause would survive markups and a floor vote, much less a conference committee that likely would be needed to bring the House and Senate bills in alignment.
But the UHF clause in the King bill is worth monitoring because it reflects a political situation that is very real. It will be tough for public safety to convince lawmakers to give first responders both the D Block and money to help pay for LTE networks nationwide, if public safety cannot provide something in return — in this example, spectrum in the UHF band that can be auctioned to offset some of the potential revenue the U.S. Treasury would receive by selling the D Block.
This is particularly important in the House, where many fiscal conservatives have just been elected based on promises to control government spending and reduce the national deficit. In public safety’s favor is the fact that the 700 MHz auction generated significantly more revenue for the Treasury than Congress expected, but it is questionable whether that line of thinking will be enough to convince fiscal conservatives in the House to support reallocation.
The notion of releasing this UHF spectrum could be palatable to public safety at some point — for instance, after voice over LTE is proven to be mission critical, so public-safety entities could converge their broadband data and voice functions on a single network. Unfortunately, it’s doubtful that will happen within the 10-year time period necessary to make the bean counters in Washington, D.C., happy.
In the meantime, public-safety representatives need to continue to make their case on Capitol Hill and push for solutions that don’t jeopardize recent investments in mission-critical LMR networks. Hopefully, lawmakers will listen.
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For more information on communications for public safety, attend these sessions at IWCE in Las Vegas, March 7-11, 2011.