Desperate for more airwaves to bolster emergency communications, public safety officials worked the halls of Congress Tuesday to press for legislation to grant them rights to spectrum the FCC failed to auction on their behalf.
Despite the lobbying blitz, lawmakers were still assessing the proposal at presstime and had made no commitments.
Representatives from eight public safety groups traveled from as far as California to make their case in meetings with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman aides to Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
"It's been over eight years" since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said Robert Davis, president of the Major City Chiefs Association, which represents U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agencies, during a Tuesday news briefing. "We still do not have the ability to communicate with each other. This is unacceptable."
The groups detailed their recommendations in a Friday letter to Senate Commerce Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, Waxman and House Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton. They've also reached out to House Energy and Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher, D-Va.
But even the staunchest proponents of legislation acknowledge a major obstacle: funding. Estimates range from $6 billion to $30 billion to construct a nationwide broadband network that would improve interoperable communications across agencies and jurisdictions.
While some revenue could be raised by leasing excess capacity to commercial outlets, the federal government would foot much of the bill.
The lobbying effort is the latest twist for the troubled D-block, a swath of 10 megahertz of spectrum the commission failed to auction in 2008. Under the FCC's original plan, the winning commercial bidder would have financed the network's construction. In the end, no one cast the minimum bid.
Public safety officials contend they would be better served if the frequencies were directly allocated to them, putting emergency groups in charge.
First responders want to combine the D-block with an additional 10 MHz they've been granted in an adjacent band to create a robust network that can accommodate cutting-edge wireless data, voice and video technologies.
"The ability to create a 20 MHz broadband network is a onetime shot," said Yucel Ors, director of legislative affairs with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International.
In an interview, Chris Moore, deputy police chief in San Jose, Calif., who participated in the Waxman meeting, said the chairman "committed to helping us solve the interoperability problem." Waxman's spokeswoman concurred with that assessment, but had no information on whether her boss supports legislation.
After burdensome conditions were blamed two years ago for contributing to the failure of the D-block auction, the FCC has been expected to resell the frequencies under revised rules featuring less-stringent requirements for winners.
Sources said the agency could still pursue that goal even if legislation is introduced. The commission is expected to include recommendations for improving emergency communications in its upcoming national broadband plan, to be presented to Congress March 17.
Genachowski, described as sympathetic to the needs of first responders, cautioned during his Tuesday meeting that assigning the D-block to public safety groups without an auction requires congressional action, sources said.