Lingering concerns about plans to create a nationwide emergency-communications network for public safety were aired on Wednesday at a hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee.
At issue is the so-called D-block, a slice of spectrum that first responders want to add to existing frequencies they control to double the size of the proposed network. Proponents say the network could help avoid the types of glitches that hampered the responses to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when emergency workers had difficulty communicating across agencies and jurisdictions.
The state-of-the-art broadband network would rely on superfast 4G technology to enable swift downloads of streaming video and law-enforcement databases, and could eventually accommodate Internet-based voice communication.
Public-safety groups have growing support for the plan in the Senate, where Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has tentatively scheduled a June 8 vote on legislation that would give the frequencies to first responders for free.
But in the House, prominent Republicans want the D-block auctioned off to raise an estimated $3 billion to help offset the network’s construction costs, estimated at $6 billion to $20 billion over the next decade. Even subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., raised concerns about funding. “Looks like we’re going to be picking up the tab on this, so we have to pay attention to the costs,” she said.
Former Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, said a lack of spectrum is not the challenge for public safety. Instead, he said, the problem appears to be “a lack of funding at the local level” that can ensure interoperable communications.
Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., agreed, also suggesting that emergency organizations may not be using the extensive number of frequencies they’ve already been granted.
“We have provided public safety with nearly 100 megahertz of spectrum for their exclusive use,” Walden said. “Public safety has more spectrum than the vast majority of wireless providers.”
Despite that sentiment, some Republicans hinted that they’re willing to seek compromise in an effort to resolve the impasse over the D-block, which has dragged on for years. Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said there’s a need for a “bipartisan plan that gets us to the finish line.” Walden added, “We should continue to examine better ways of creating a public-private partnership.”
Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on Energy and Commerce, said Congress should have public-safety legislation ready for President Obama's signature before Sept. 11, which will be the 10th anniversary of the attacks, “as a tribute to the brave first responders who risked their lives to save others.”
Meanwhile, Rockefeller said that revenue from an upcoming auction of television airwaves (which stations are expected to voluntarily relinquish in exchange for a cut of the auction proceeds) would help pay for the public-safety network.
The senator also said additional money would be available to cover the hefty price tag. “States will get funds for planning grants for infrastructure development. Just as first responders pay to use commercial networks, they will pay to use this one,” Rockefeller said in a statement.
Senate aides close to the situation said on Tuesday that the West Virginian will have the backing of the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, for next week’s vote.
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