Fortunately, there is now the promise of a real solution – but only if Congress acts quickly. I have concluded that the only workable, practical solution is for Congress to reallocate and dedicate exclusive access to a small portion of the wireless spectrum to public safety so that they may operate a Public Safety Broadband Network.
Senators Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Hutchison (R-Texas) have proposed a bill that will do just that, taking the “D Block” of spectrum that could be paired with the spectrum already used by public safety, joining the two together. This will bring public safety communications into the 21st century, with advanced features such as real-time video and new applications. True interoperability will permit first responders at all levels of government to be able to communicate with each other seamlessly and effectively.
It is important to understand that this new system will be available for public safety not only in major emergencies, but also for daily response to medical emergencies, fire, and police calls. Interoperability on a nationwide wireless broadband network will permit vertical coordination among local, state, and Federal authorities as well as horizontal communication among public safety entities in neighboring communities.
Others have suggested a response based on auctioning the spectrum to commercial service providers and then having public safety share the use of that spectrum. That won’t work. In times of crisis, both public safety and individual citizens need to communicate with minimal or no interruption. We have no idea how shared spectrum would work in a real crisis. Instead, we need a system under which both commercial operators and public safety can meet their communications needs by having their own dedicated spectrum. Public safety should not be compelled to rely on commercial operators for access to spectrum, and commercial operators should also have the assurance that their networks will be available for those who want to communicate with family and friends, especially when there is an emergency.
I stand in support of the key national public safety organizations and the co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, who advocate tirelessly for Congress to provide public safety with dedicated and exclusive access to the “D Block” portion of the 700 MHz spectrum band. The time for Congress to act is now. We cannot wait until after the next Katrina, the next Irene, or another 9/11. Instead, let’s commit to building a wireless broadband network that equips public safety with the mission-critical communications infrastructure necessary to save lives. The Rockefeller/Hutchison bill is the best solution. If we work together, we can appropriately honor the memory of the scores of first responders who gave their lives saving others on September 11, 2001, by passing this important legislation.
Lt. General (Retired) Russel Honore was commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, restoring order and jump starting the recovery of the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He is the author of Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family From Disasters, published by ATRIA/Simon and Schuster.