With the fate of their legislation in the hands of another committee, House Homeland Security Committee leaders brought in public-safety officials Wednesday to bolster their claim that reallocation of a controversial chunk of spectrum for a public-safety network is a matter of life and death.
Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., and ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., introduced legislation earlier this year that would reallocate the D-block spectrum for the creation of an interoperable, national broadband public-safety network.
The nation’s fire and police chiefs and other first responders argue that they do not have enough spectrum and that the D-block in particular is best suited for such a network.
“It’s a matter of life and death. That’s as simple as we can make it,” William Carrow, president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International said at the committee hearing.
The communications problems that emergency first responders face was exposed when police and fire officials in New York had difficulty communicating with each other after the September 11 terrorist attacks. “Now we’re approaching the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and yet first responders across the nation face many of the same problems that existed 10 years ago,” King said.
Public-safety officials say that many first responders currently cannot communicate with officials from other jurisdictions because they are using outdated technology that operates on different bands. They say an interoperable broadband network would address the issue while also helping users access data and video during emergency incidents.
The chairmen of the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks like the idea. “We support the immediate allocation of the D-block spectrum to public safety,” former Gov. Tom Kean, R-N.J., and retired Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., said in their written testimony at a separate hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Under current law, the Federal Communications Commission is obligated to auction the D-block to commercial users. The D-block is 10 megahertz of spectrum in the upper 700-megahertz band. Public safety officials note that it is adjacent to another 10 megahertz of spectrum that they already control.
Some of the smaller wireless firms such as T-Mobile, which need more spectrum to meet the growing demand for wireless broadband, favor auctioning the D-block to commercial users. Gaining more spectrum would allow them to serve more customers.
Bigger firms such as AT&T and Verizon favor giving the D-block to public-safety officials. It is one of many issues where AT&T and T-Mobile, which are seeking to merge, are on opposite sides.
The push for reallocation of the D-block appears to be at odds with key members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over King’s bill. Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., and other GOP lawmakers have said they favor auctioning the spectrum as planned to commercial users and using some of the proceeds to help reduce the deficit.
An Energy and Commerce spokeswoman noted that Walden’s subcommittee is slated to hold a hearing on spectrum issues on April 12. At the hearing, “members will discuss using spectrum to advance public safety, promote broadband, create jobs, and reduce the deficit,” she said.
Thompson criticized Energy and Commerce Republicans, saying, “While deficit reduction is a worthy goal, we cannot afford to be penny wise and pound foolish.”
After the hearing King was more diplomatic, saying he is optimistic that Congress will pass legislation this year. He said having both bipartisan congressional support and the backing of the Obama administration should help move the issue forward.
Carrow’s group and other members of a coalition of police and fire chiefs and other public-safety officials plan to pressure lawmakers during meetings over the next two days on Capitol Hill. Among those they are expected to meet with include staffers to key members of the Energy and Commerce Committee.