Safety takes priority

Police, others want 60-69 spectrum ASAP for emergency services

Broadcasters have yet another group with increasing clout pushing the government to get them off the analog spectrum as quickly as possible.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, public-safety officials are telling policymakers it is more important than ever to auction channels 60-69 quickly and take back the 700 MHz swath of spectrum so new public-safety services can be adopted on chs. 63, 64, 68 and 69.

"The nation's public-safety agencies cannot wait until some future, unknown date when 85% of television households have access to DTV signals," wrote Glen Nash, president of the board of directors of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, to key House lawmakers. "They need the spectrum now, especially considering the terrible events of Sept. 11."

The International Association of Chiefs of Police sent a similar letter to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, and members of that panel.

According to the law, broadcasters are required to give back the analog spectrum once 85% of households can receive a digital TV signal, either over the air or via cable or satellite. The law sets 2006 as a target give-back date, although few people expect broadcasters to be able to return the analog spectrum to the government by that time. The government plans to auction spectrum currently used by broadcasters on chs. 52-59 and 60-69. The rest of broadcasters' analog spectrum, chs. 2-51, will remain in broadcasters' hands at least through the transition to digital TV.

Already, plans to auction channels in the 700 MHz block (chs. 60-69) have been delayed five times after potential industry participants asked to be given more time to build business plans. Wireless companies that want to develop high-speed Internet services are expected to pay high prices for the spectrum, for which auctions are scheduled to begin June 19, 2002. Public-safety officials, who want to get going on local and statewide communications systems, currently must wait for the industry to settle the matter before they can proceed.

Even before they received the letters, committee members Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.) told the FCC that the government needs to pay greater attention to the issue.

"The attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon underscore the need for a seamless and interoperable public-safety radio communications infrastructure in order to enable firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel, as well as other public-safety officials, to respond rapidly and effectively in times of crisis," the lawmakers wrote.

The FCC responded that it already has put certain administrative systems in place, but it may need some additional help from Congress to get the spectrum turned over.

"The ultimate resolution of what happens if the requisite events do not occur within the predicted time frame is a matter not completely within the commission's control. Thus, the outcome of such a scenario, and the establishment of a date-certain transition, are matters about which a congressional review might be helpful," responded FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

"Please note," he added, "that the lack of adequate funding for public-safety communications is a long-standing problem. Post-crisis, as Congress appropriates funds for enhancing security and emergency preparedness, it could consider the communications needs of public safety."

Public-safety officials are pushing for spectrum availability and licenses now, but it can take as long as a decade to plan and implement such systems. It's nearly impossible to apply long-range planning if it is unclear when spectrum will be available. On top of that, technical and economic challenges make it tough to install wireless communications systems. All equipment must interoperate, and it is expensive.

Since Sept. 11, the Energy and Commerce Committee that Tauzin chairs has met with broadcasters, cable operators, studios and consumer electronics manufacturers to discuss how best to speed the transition to digital TV. Upton's subcommittee still may hold a hearing on the subject, which so far has been postponed twice since Sept. 11.