Federal narrowbanding help is a great idea, but time is running out
Today, the House introduced bipartisan legislation that would establish a $400-million federal grant program to help local public-safety entities pay for changes to LMR networks forced by the FCC mandate to narrowband systems operating below 512 MHz to 12.5 kHz channels.
It’s a good idea, because finding money to pay for this unfunded federal mandate is a big problem for many communities that already are contemplating substantial layoffs and service cutbacks in the face of dwindling tax bases and a struggling economy. What would make it a great idea is the ability to go back in time, so it could be proposed earlier.
That’s because the narrowbanding deadline is just 15 months away, and any agencies that haven’t already narrowbanded must include funds for this purpose in their next budgets, some of which must be approved before the end of the month or certainly by the end of the year.
In making their budget decisions, local elected officials would love to be able to allocate federal grant funds to pay for some or all of the costs associated with narrowbanding, because it likely would save the jobs of a lot of hard-working civil employees. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for those elected officials to know whether the legislation will pass and — if it does — how much their local entity would receive from a federal grant program.
To meet the current FCC deadline, local entities with a January-to-January budget year effectively have to decide in the next three months whether to find the funds to meet the narrowbanding mandate or to ignore the mandate to reduce the severity of cutbacks in other areas. Even if Congress acted faster than most can contemplate and this proposal were approved in less than a month, that doesn’t leave enough time to create the grant program, establish grant guidance, accept applications and decide who would receive the funds.
Bill co-sponsors Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) and House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) should be applauded for recognizing the very real need for narrowbanding funds for the federal government and taking action to address the issue. However, unless the bill also calls for delaying the narrowbanding mandate — something that may be worth considering—it’s practical impact will be minimal to those entities that are determined to meet the FCC’s deadline.