Republican leadership in the House
energy & Commerce Committee are not ready to join with Democrats and some
Republicans to propose allocating more spectrum to create a national,
interoperable public safety communications network.
That was clear in a Communications
subcommittee hearing on the issue Wednesday, which was ironically beset by
communications problems of its own. The witness' microphones did not work at
several points, leading a somewhat exasperated Communications Subcommittee
Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) to comment: "You expect us to solve this
other problem." ("Us" being Congress and "this other
problem" being the lack of an interoperable broadband public safety
Walden, Energy & Commerce
Committee Chair Fred Upton and everyone else in the hearing room regardless of
party affiliation were in agreement that first responders needed such a
network, but the disagreement was over how to do it and how to pay for it.
Both Walden and Upton still
support auctioning, rather than allocating, the D block, as the FCC first
proposed in the National Broadband Plan and as law currently dictates.
But the White House is now backing
allocation, and the FCC is supporting whatever can get both the public safety
net built and broadcasters paid to move off their spectrum so it can be
auctioned to, in part, pay for the interoperable emergency net.
Rep. Henry Waxman (R-Calif.), former
chair of Energy & Commerce, gave a shout out to the Senate bill of Jay
Rockefeller (D- W. Va.), which would allocate the d block and authorize auction
payments for broadcasters. He also said he had approached Upton and Walden about creating a bipartisan bill, likely along
those lines, and hoped they would take him up on the offer. (At about the same
time, Rockefeller tweeted: @EnergyCommerce colleagues debate creation of public
safety network. Let's get this done for our first responders.")
But Walden and Upton raised a
number of issues in suggesting that the problem might not be about more
spectrum or money.
They pointed out that, according
to the Congressional Research Service, some $13 billion in federal funds for
equipment had already gone to public safety since 2001 and about 100 mHz of
spectrum had been allocated, and no interoperable system had emerged.
Walden favors the FCC's initial
proposal of auctioning the spectrum for a public-private partnership that could
leverage the private sector expertise and drive greater innovation lower prices
in public safety equipment.
"Public safety has more
spectrum than the vast majority of wireless providers, who, as it is oft cited,
provide 16-year-old customers with more capabilities than those available to
our First Responders," said Walden at the hearing.
There seemed to be general
agreement among the industry and one public safety witnesses that there would
need to be a public-private partnership whether or not the spectrum is
allocated or auctioned. The disagreement is over whether public safety would be
sharing with controlling the net and letting industry use it during down times,
or industry controlled and let public safety use it during emergencies.
Former E&C Chair Joe Barton
(R-Tex.) said that 10 years and $13 billion after 9/11 there was no excuse for
not having an interoperable network, but that he was not convinced the issue
was a lack of spectrum, though it might be a lack of money at the local level.
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) defended
the committee against suggestions it should just take up Rockefeller's senate
bill. He said he does not think it gets at the problem. "We are being
diligent and asking the tough questions," he said.
Witness Jeff Johnson, chief
executive of the Western Fire Chiefs Association but speaking for an alliance
of public safety groups, said the spectrum needs to be allocated, and that
public safety officials need to have command and control over the network and
the governance body set up to run it.
He said that one reason first
responders need more spectrum is that then need better spectrum than they have
now, which includes a about 50 MHz that is only good for short distances and
does not travel easily through walls or windows. And when asked why first
responders need about as much spectrum to serve perhaps only 500,000 people in
the field as commercial nets need to deliver service to 100 million, he and
others on the panel pointed out that they need a more robust system, and one
that has capacity everywhere because they do not know where the next disaster
or emergency will be. "Because when we need it, we need it."
One Republican who is ready to
back allocation is Rep. Peter King of New York. He called on Upton to take up his bill,
which also allocates the block and authorizes incentive auctions. "Nearly 10 years after 9/11, now is
the time to reallocate the D Block for public safety and to provide funding
necessary for the construction of a national wireless interoperable public
King is chairman of the Homeland
Security Committee, which also held a hearing Wednesday on reallocating the D
block. His bill, like Rockefeller's, is supported by a laundry list of
public safety groups.