Vice President Joe Biden pledged Thursday that the Obama Administration is going to get an emergency broadband interoperable network built and funded and gave a shout-out for the Senate bill (S .911) allocating D block spectrum reclaimed from broadcasters to build it. "We owe it to you," he said to first responders in the crowd.
That came at a White House summit on public safety broadband that also featured the Attorney General, FCC chair and other top officials pushing for the network and the incentive auction bill that would create and pay for it.
Also at the meeting were FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Jeffrey Holder, and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, and (in the audience) S. 911 sponsor and prime mover Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.), as well as officials from first responder community.
Rockefeller was praised for his commitment to the issue by virtually everyone in the room. The senator has been prominently pushing for a nationwide interoperable broadband communications network for first responders, using D block spectrum donated by the government.
"We have been trying to get here for 10 years, and Sen. Rockefeller got bipartisan consensus with [ranking member] Kay Bailey Hutchison and they worked out something really important," Biden said.
Biden made it clear that he put first responders first in line for spectrum. Speaking to the police and fire representatives in the audience, Biden said: "What we are talking about is not whether you need what we are discussing. We know how badly you need it. It's about who gets it. There is only so much space on the highway. So, the question is how it gets allocated.
A lot of very serious interests concluded that you were not the top priority... And in the budget negotiations, this is an issue, a revenue issue." Biden is currently part of those budget negotiations, but he assured the audience that "the money is going to be there."
As the law is currently written, the FCC would have to auction the spectrum to a private entity that would then build the network and share it on a priority basis with first responders. The Genachowski FCC had been backing that approach, but more recently has been emphasizing that the key is whatever gets the net built out and paid for.
D block allocation is central to Rockefeller's incentive auction bill, which would allow the FCC to compensate broadcasters for giving up spectrum, which would be auctioned to wireless companies and part of the proceeds used to launch and operate the public safety net. The bill has passed the Senate Commerce Committee, which Rockefeller chairs, and must now get a floor vote and head to the House. Rockefeller wants the bill passed before the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Building the net was one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
Talking about the bill's allocation rather than auction of the D block, the Vice President said: "We're giving you bandwidth that other people have been occupying that you need more than they need...Not because they didn't use the bandwidth well, but because you need it more." Actually the D block was freed up by the efficiencies of digital broadcasting. It is the other 120 MHz of spectrum the FCC is looking to reclaim from broadcasters to auction and help pay for the net that raises the issues of who needs it more, broadcasters for wireless companies.
The President has already come out in support of allocating D block spectrum to that network rather than auctioning it to private companies, as some Republicans and the FCC's National Broadband Plan had proposed. The FCC tried to auction the spectrum in 2007, but did not draw a minimum bid.
At the event, Genachowski said it was also time to get the network up and running. "We are closer than even to achieving the vital goal of funding and building a nationwide, interoperable network for our first responders," he said. But he suggested the FCC had not been waiting for a bill to pass to advance emergency communication response in a world where digital has transformed those capabilities and outstripped the needs of the public safety community. (Genachowski and others made the point that first responders are currently denied functionality common to their kids and neighbors with smart phones.)
"We have already taken actions within our power to advance public safety communications with input from the public safety community...we've helped establish a framework for an interoperable network...authorized over 20 jurisdictions for early deployment of the public safety broadband network, and we have worked with NTIA to assure funding to many of those networks." He also cited the new national emergency alert system the FCC will be testing in New York that allows emergency alerts to be sent directly to mobile phones and the FCC's "ramp up" of next-generation 911.
He said he applauded the Rockefeller bill's creation of the broadband public safety network and the incentive auctions. He also pointed out that the FCC's National Broadband Plan made a priority that a network "finally be funded and built."
He did not mention that the FCC had proposed auctioning rather than allocating the spectrum -- currently the law requires that auction -- or that the FCC has been backing auction rather than allocation, though Rockefeller has said the FCC is now solidly behind allocation.
"To get this network built there are still tough issues to work through," he said, "and we may not agree on every detail," he said, "but we all agree on the need for action." Allocation vs. auction is likely still one of those "details. "
As recently as three weeks ago, an FCC official familiar with the chairman's thinking told B&C/Multi that the chairman "has indicated" he still supports an auction, but that he also supports freeing up more spectrum and the incentive auction for broadcasters, which are the elements he talked Thursday. It is that package the FCC can get behind given the key goal of getting the interoperable network built and funded, the source indicated.