Capitol Hill showdown means D Block issue could be decided soon
It’s the holiday season, a time of giving and a time to get home to visit with family and friends.
Atop public safety’s Christmas wish list this year is reallocation of the 700 MHz D Block and billions of dollars of federal funding to pay for the buildout of a nationwide LTE network for first responders. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers want to be able to go home for the holidays knowing that the country finally has a government operating with an approved budget and that taxes will not increase automatically next year for 160 million Americans.
Together, these factors could result in public safety getting the D Block and significant funding — between $5 billion and $12 billion, depending on the proposal — sometime during the next week, because these items are part of language included in the payroll-tax bill passed by the House. And that payroll-tax bill is being tied politically to omnibus budget legislation that supposedly everyone has agreed to but has not yet been the subject of any public votes.
From the outside, it’s confusing and downright frustrating to watch, particularly with a potential government shutdown looming at midnight tomorrow. But the bottom line for public safety is that there is a realistic chance that all of the united lobbying efforts regarding the D Block and LTE funding made during the last two years could bear fruit during the next several days — a terrific Christmas gift to first responders and the communications industry that supports them.
What has to happen for this to be a reality? The Republican-controlled House has passed a payroll-tax bill and is prepared to approve the budget bill. But many Democrats — the majority party in the Senate — have problems with certain provisions of the House payroll-tax bill, including a stipulation that could accelerate construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project that President Barack Obama opposes.
Right now, all eyes are on the Senate to make the next move. After party leadership in the Senate spent most of yesterday grandstanding and some Beltway sources predicted a government shutdown, there seems to be a willingness to reach a compromise solution today.
Reportedly, Capitol Hill leaders are trying to negotiate a deal that will keep the government open for business and avert a payroll-tax hike.
During these talks, hopefully they will revisit the public-safety-communications language in the House payroll-tax bill, so public safety is not forced to return its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum. Some sort of public-safety spectrum giveback may be necessary, but these airwaves — between public safety’s 700 MHz broadband spectrum and 800 MHz narrowband spectrum — should be a key component to the long-term spectral foundation for first-responder communications.
Public-safety representatives also have expressed concern about the governance provisions in the House bill, which calls for a for-profit administrator model similar to the one used for 800 MHz rebanding. The rebanding project was supposed to be finished in July 2008, but it remains ongoing today. Many factors have contributed to this time extension, but many first-responder representatives have been critical to the Transition Administrator’s role in the rebanding project and do not want to see the model repeated for the deployment of a nationwide LTE network.
Whether all of these negotiations can be completed in the compressed time available to lawmakers is anybody’s guess, because things tend to change rapidly on Capitol Hill in the hours before the holiday recess. But, by making the right moves, Congress has an opportunity to jumpstart the next generation of public-safety communications and to be perceived as something more akin to Santa Claus, instead of the Grinch.
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