Latest Capitol Hill actions have public safety hopeful but concerned
For public safety, it appears that there finally is a light at the end of the tunnel representing the struggle to secure reallocation of the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety and billions of dollars in federal funding needed to deploy a nationwide LTE network for first responders.
Last week, a key House subcommittee approved a bill that would reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to public safety and provide at least $5 billion in funding for the deployment of a nationwide LTE network for first responders. The legislation was a surprise to many, because the sponsor of the bill — subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) — previously expressed support for the FCC auctioning the D Block to commercial operators, as current law dictates.
Furthermore, House Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) also expressed support for the bill, which means the proposal certainly has a good chance of being approved by the House Commerce Committee that public-safety representatives have viewed as the primary hurdle to clear. Indeed, the notion of D Block reallocation and billions of dollars in federal money to support a nationwide network has been supported by the White House, the Senate Commerce Committee, and the Homeland Security Committees in both the House and Senate.
Whether this language advances as a standalone bill or as part of omnibus appropriations legislation is anybody’s guess. However, if it comes to a vote in Congress, all signs indicate that public safety will get the D Block and the funding it wants so much — a remarkable turn of events, given that most Beltway pundits thought the effort was little more than a pipe dream two years ago.
But public safety is not celebrating yet, and for good reason.
First, there is the issue of actually getting the matter to a vote, which often proves to be a more daunting task in Congress than many outsiders would think.
Second, there are several key aspects of various bills that need to be resolved, some of which are more difficult than others.
For instance, the Walden legislation calls for $5 billion to $6.5 billion in funding, while S.911 — the bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee — would provide $12 billion in funding. Obviously, public safety would like as much financial support as possible to help ensure that LTE can be deployed in more rural areas, but I don’t anticipate first-responder representatives opposing any funding amount in this range.
A touchier subject is the governance model. The House bill calls for each of the 50 states to develop its own LTE strategies under the supervision of a national administrator — an arrangement similar to the one used for 800 MHz rebanding. Proponents claim this administrator model would be better, because of the lessons learned from that experience, but many in public safety believe the key lesson learned is that the administrator model should not be used again, particularly if the administrator is not provided with incentives to keep the project on schedule.
On the other hand, the other primary model proposed is one that calls for single non-profit governance organization to oversee the buildout of the proposed nationwide LTE network. Once again, public-safety entities that are accustomed to significant local control over their communications system may have issues with that scenario.
But the biggest issue is language in the House bill that calls for public safety to return its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum five years after an administrator deems that mission-critical voice over broadband is viable. For many public-safety agencies that may have recently deployed — or are in the process of deploying — 700 MHz systems costing tens of millions of dollars, the prospect that the government might force them to abandon this investment after less than a decade of use is unfathomable.
Mind you, public-safety representatives have long anticipated that some first responders would have to return some of spectrum in this equation. Most conversations have started with the 4.9 GHz airwaves, but Capitol Hill is not interested in that spectrum (although many lawmakers love to talk about how that 50 MHz swath makes public safety spectrum rich). Airwaves in the UHF and VHF bands also are a theoretical possibility, but lawmakers realize that other commercial users also would have to be cleared to make that spectrum available for broadband auction.
In other words, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, in terms of securing the D Block and funding for an LTE network. But public-safety representatives still need to work diligently to ensure that the light is a bright ray of hope for the future of public-safety communications, not an oncoming train that could lead to a potentially tragic collision of legacy and next-generation systems.
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