After nearly 10 years of stalled efforts on the issue, the Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation Wednesday designed to finally build a national public-safety broadband network to help first responders communicate during emergencies. It allocates so-called D-block to police and firefighters, contradicting current law, which would sell it off.
The committee approved the legislation offered by Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, on a 21-4 vote. Rockefeller has been pushing to pass the measure before the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which exposed deep problems with the nation’s emergency communications system.
“On that terrible September day, first responders perished because they could not communicate with each other,” Rockefeller said.
Following the markup, Rockefeller said the large bipartisan vote in favor of the bill in committee bodes well for its chances of making it to the Senate floor, where he is confident it will pass.
Still, some Republicans and even a few Democrats, such as Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said they have some concerns with the bill. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said that while he favors ensuring that first responders have access to an interoperable broadband network, he questioned the potential cost to taxpayers and said the network could be better built by the private sector and leased to public safety during emergencies.
The bill would reallocate 10 megahertz of spectrum known as the D-block to public safety officials for the creation of their national broadband network, instead of auctioning off the spectrum to commercial bidders as required by current law.
It also would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to conduct incentive auctions, which are aimed at enticing broadcasters and others to give up some of their spectrum in exchange for a share of proceeds. Some the funds from the incentive auctions would help build the public safety network and go for deficit reduction.
Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have introduced their own bill also aimed at building a public-safety network and said they would work with Rockefeller to try to get some of the provisions in their legislation added to the Commerce measure.
Committee members had crafted dozens of possible amendments to the bill, but the panel’s leaders persuaded most to hold off on offering them for now.
The panel adopted a substitute amendment negotiated by Rockefeller and Hutchison. Among the issues Hutchison wanted addressed included allowing the public-safety network to be leased to commercial and other users on a secondary basis.
The committee also adopted without discussion about two dozen other amendments, including one requiring an audit of all the spectrum public-safety officials currently control, another requiring two studies on how the country can move to a next-generation 911 system, and one aimed at ensuring the continued use of unlicensed white space spectrum.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., offered and then withdrew his amendment that would have eliminated the provision from the bill reallocating the D-block spectrum to public-safety officials. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., offered an amendment, rejected on a 16-9 vote, that would have eliminated a provision authorizing $1 billion for telecommunications research and development.