The big bang
The tide turns
Public safety exhibiting a united front on the matter was essential, but support from outside of public safety would be needed to achieve success. Some of that support arrived when Verizon and AT&T expressed support for D Block reallocation and funding for public safety, but both carriers emphasized that any lobbying efforts would have to be led by public safety.
In April 2010, public safety got more critical support, when the “Big 7” — a coalition of organizations representing mayors, cities and governors — expressed its support for D Block reallocation.
“It’s very unusual to get the Big 7 to agree on anything,” McEwen said at the time. “The fact that they are all unified behind us, and the fact that public safety is unified … is what is making this a success.”
Suddenly, the D Block no longer was simply a public-safety issue but one that was supported by organizations representing most elected officials in the country — a reality not lost on Congress. Appealing to the election instincts of lawmakers had been done before; in fact, it was with the Big 7’s support that public safety was able to secure 24 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum in the 1990s as part of the digital-television legislation package — with some of that evolving into the aforementioned 10 MHz of public-safety broadband spectrum held by the PSST.
“The template for doing this was there,” PSA spokesman Sean Kirkendall said. “The template was there from 1995, when we got the 24 MHz. It was right there in front of us … [and I wondered,] ‘Why aren’t we doing the things we need to do? We need to name the entity; we need to have consensus; we need to get the Big 7 in, and then what we do is get the other organizations in.”
Indeed, after securing the support of the Big 7, public safety began to see movement on Capitol Hill, with Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) introducing a bill to reallocate the D Block. Then, in July — with PSA officials visiting Capitol Hill — the tide turned on the D Block debate in a single day.
Influential Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced legislation calling for D Block reallocation and funding for public safety. On top of that, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) — chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC’s budget — also expressed his intention to offer similar legislation.
Rockefeller’s announcement clearly resonated with the FCC. That afternoon, in a hurriedly call press conference, FCC officials tried to deflect questions regarding possible changes regarding its D Block auction plans — but the agency never initiated any actions to establish rules for an auction after that point.
“It made all the difference in the world,” Kirkendall said. “We still had a basis to push from with McCain-Lieberman — McCain knows his way around the committee, because he was the chairman before.
“[But] at 11 that morning …the [public-safety] folks walk into Rockefeller’s office, and Rockefeller personally talks to them and says, ‘We’re going to make this happen. I’m going to personally support you on this D Block allocation, and we’re going to make this happen.'”
Closing the deal
While Rockefeller’s support may have dissuaded the FCC from pursuing a commercial auction of the D Block, it would still take an act of Congress to reallocate the coveted spectrum to public safety and secure the funding, which had become even more critical as local and state jurisdictions struggled with budgets squeezed by an economy in dramatic recession.
Educating Capitol Hill regarding public safety’s communications needs proved to be a monumental task, one that was made more difficult by the fact that the FCC — the expert agency — still recommended that the D Block be auctioned to a commercial operator.
Public-safety representatives had to demonstrate the nuances of first-responder communications, and that the economic reality of the commercial world precluded any wireless carrier from meeting the coverage and reliability requirements of public safety during times of emergencies.
In addition, public safety faced the difficult balancing act of generating excitement for the long-term prospects of a dedicated LTE network — the eventual ability to put all communication on a single network, including voice and data — against the near-term reality that traditional LMR networks will continue to be needed until mission-critical voice over LTE is proven and available.
“Reflecting back on some of the issues and how we made progress, it got right down to just sheer public-safety determination, and we always said we weren’t giving up, and we weren’t going away,” former APCO President Richard Mirgon said. “I think that’s what carried us across the finish line.”
By 2011, the conversation on Capitol Hill regarding the public-safety network had changed from if it should be done to how it should be accomplished. There was general consensus that a nationwide network should be in place, and the 10th anniversary of 9/11 helped remind lawmakers of the communications need throughout the year.
While there still wasn’t complete agreement on all aspects of the proposal — spectrum giveback and governance were the two biggest sticking points — the bigger problem was the fact that Congress was so divided along partisan lines that very few pieces of meaningful legislation were being enacted.
Capitol Hill proponents repeatedly tried to attach the public-safety network language to larger bills that were perceived as “must-pass” legislation, only to determine later that even supposedly must-pass bills were not going to be approved in this dysfunctional Congress.
Indeed, many Beltway observers saw the payroll-tax-cut legislation as the last chance for public safety with the current Congress. After a well-publicized snafu in their handling of the bill in December, Republicans lost a lot of political leverage and needed to get this legislation approved. Beyond that, most Beltway observers believed that pre-election partisan politics would prevent other significant bills from being enacted until a new Congress takes office in 2013.
But the legislation did pass, with the public-safety communications language included. Despite some last-minute negotiations on key items, the new law calls for first responders to get the D Block and $7 billion of federal funding — a result that makes sense, according to Chris Moore, police chief for the city of San Jose.
“If the cause is right, I don’t think they [members of Congress] had any other choice — I didn’t think they could say, ‘No.'” Moore said. “I had trouble convincing people at first, but — if everybody on the Hill knows it should happen — why wouldn’t it? It comes down to money and their thoughts on our ability to make this happen and whether we could get the support.”