Lawmakers weigh next move on public-safety spectrum


Source: Reuters
Author: John Poirier

Eight years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks exposed an urgent need for an interoperable nationwide communications network for police, fire and rescue squads, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are headed back to the drawing board. Their objective is a wireless broadband system that would enable first responders to communicate across jurisdictions and facilitate swift downloads of video and other critical information during emergencies.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) said at a hearing Thursday that a block of airwaves designated for public safety use would benefit from a public-private partnership. The so-called D-block airwaves were leftover from a massive spectrum auction last year. The lack of interest from bidders was attributed by some industry experts to uncertainty over how to value a network shared between commercial and public safety use. The FCC has no obligation to re-auction the spectrum and it could be auctioned for commercial use only, or dedicated to public use.

Some wireless carriers like T-Mobile are seeking more spectrum, as demands on their networks from mobile phone usage increases. In a letter to committee members, T-Mobile said Congress should strongly consider legislation to allow the FCC to auction a portion of the D-block spectrum for commercial use and funnel the proceeds to construction and maintenance of a public safety broadband network.

Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA) outlined four main approaches:

1) Give the D-block to the public safety community, which would combine it with spectrum already under its control.

2) Hold another auction of the D-block, but only for commercial purposes, and use the proceeds to help finance construction of an interoperable network utilizing frequencies operated by public safety groups.

3) Auction the D-block to a commercial carrier that would enter in a public-private partnership to create a new safety network.

4) Combine the 10 megahertz in the D-block with the 10 MHz controlled by the public-safety community, and auction off the entire amount for use under a public-private partnership.

Chairman Boucher said he is not convinced any of them would raise the estimated $10 billion to $40 billion needed to build the state-of-the-art network. "At the end of the day we're going to have to find some sort of general fund revenues to finance this," he suggested.

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