Lawmakers Push to Understand Spectrum Needs of Public Safety Officials

WASHINGTON, June 18, 2010 – Lawmakers on Thursday reviewed different ways to treat spectrum, including auctioning it to the private sector and allocating it for public emergency services.

WASHINGTON, June 18, 2010 – Lawmakers on Thursday reviewed different ways to treat spectrum, including auctioning it to the private sector and allocating it for public emergency services.

Witnesses and lawmakers on the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet discussed the Next Generation 9-1-1 Preservation Act.

Subpanel Chairman Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., called the opportunity to address the spectrum issue a “historic opportunity.”

Communications equipment for emergency first responders isn’t interoperable nationwide, spurring a host of problems. For example, New York firefighters in the World Trade Center towers during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks weren’t able to hear members of the New York Police Department via radio saying the buildings were going to collapse, resulting in almost 200 deaths.

If spectrum is auctioned off, lawmakers hope that the proceeds will be used to build a nationwide interoperable network.

But, emergency situation first responders say they need more spectrum to enable their networks to become interoperable.

However, if the “D Block” spectrum is auctioned with restrictions, companies are likely to bid less for it, reducing the pot of money for building the interoperable networks.

Joseph Hanley, vice president of technology planning and services for Telephone and Data Systems, which includes U.S. Cellular, defended auctioning of the D Block.

“A commercial auction of reasonably-sized D Block licenses followed by negotiated public/private partnerships will help meet both public safety and commercial broadband goals for the spectrum,” he said.

Ranking member Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida asked if the first responders could rent the spectrum from the private sector.

Deputy Chief of the New York City Police Department Charles Dowd said, “Next in line, first in queue is not sufficient to do the work that we need to do.”

Dowd said they need the equipment to work all the time, especially in mission-critical situations, and relying on private sector service was not good enough.

He defended the needs of public safety first responders: “We urgently request that Congress take immediate action to reallocate and assign the 700 MHz D Block of broadband spectrum directly to public safety, rather than a public auction.”

James Barnett, chief of the public safety at the Homeland Security Department, said the average number of users, per megahertz of spectrum, of public safety-first responders is about 21,000 compared to almost 530,000 users in the private sector.

Barnett said that on an average day, 10 MHz is enough spectrum, but on some heavily used days, even 20 MHz isn’t enough.

Boucher pressed Dowd, who is also commanding officer of the New York City Police Department’s communications division, in regard to how much spectrum the first responders actually need.

Dowd said first responders use their radio systems in a way that, if you compare it to commercial use, is inefficient. Dowd also said this was because the average first responder needs more spectrum than the average cell user.

Steven Zipperstein, legal and external affairs and general counsel for Verizon Wireless, said, “As additional spectrum is available, however, it is critical that it not be burdened with restrictions or onerous conditions [like] ownership restrictions or auction limitations.”

Stearns recommended to Dowd that he find a fallback request because if they moved ahead with the D Block, they wanted first responders to be on board with whatever decision would be made.

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