Police, fire chiefs say plan will not improve communications

Police and fire chiefs from around the country are calling on Congress to make sure public safety agencies have access to enough wireless airwaves to form a nationwide communication network for first responders. 

Public safety executives say the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) National Broadband Plan undermines their ability to build a network that would allow federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to talk to each other during national disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

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The National Broadband Plan, which the FCC delivered to Congress last week, makes several recommendations intended to allow paramedics, police officers, port authority patrols and other emergency workers to create a national network to replace the current patchwork of networks that use different technologies, making it difficult for different jurisdictions to communicate. 

The biggest point of contention is over the FCC’s recommendation to auction off a chunk of spectrum previously set aside for public safety. During emergencies, public safety officials would have priority access on commercial networks. 

But top police commissioners and fire chiefs say that system will not be reliable enough. Instead, they want the FCC to give a larger piece of spectrum to the first responders, who would then lease excess capacity to commercial providers when it is not needed.

“We don’t object to public-private partnerships as long as public safety is in charge of the process,” said Charles Dowd, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department, in an interview. “Commercial networks simply aren’t built to the standards we need.”

New York’s technology dilemma illustrates the problems faced around the country. Police officers’ wireless network runs on different frequencies than that used by the Port Authority. The Metropolitan Transit Authority that monitors the subway system uses yet a different set of frequencies. Devices that can communicate on all those frequencies cost upward of $8,000 and do not have broadband capabilities, Dowd said.

Developing a nationwide network for public safety has been discussed for more than a decade but has yet to come to fruition. 

In 1997, Congress directed the FCC to give public safety agencies access to airwaves being vacated by TV broadcasters. In 2007, the FCC adopted rules to create a mandatory partnership between public safety agencies and the private sector with a section of the airwaves — known as the “D Block” — to be auctioned off. But during the federal auction in 2008, the block of spectrum failed to attract the minimum required bid.

Congress then directed the FCC to auction it to the private sector. In its broadband plan, the FCC recommended giving the proceeds of that auction to the public safety community to build an interoperable network. And the FCC would provide 10 megahertz for public safety’s own network.

“Reaching some kind of understanding is very important,” said Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. “Public safety keeps saying they need more spectrum, but I have said they really need to talk about the funding as a key part as well. Without the federal funding, there will not be a national network because people will not be able to afford to get it to all the places we need it to be.”

The broadband plan suggests the public safety network will cost between $12 billion and $16 billion over 10 years. The FCC is recommending that Congress set aside $6.5 billion over that time period for a grant program to build the network. By assessing a fee on all U.S. broadband users, an additional $6 billion to $10 billion would go toward operating and upgrading the system. 

The plan asks Congress to authorize the FCC to collect the fee, which would likely be less than $1 per month per user.

The chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, respectively, expressed support for the FCC’s plan in a statement, saying it “offers a clear roadmap” for finally creating a national public safety network. 

The FCC’s Barnett said the national network needs to go into development very soon in order to take advantage of the commercial roll-out of 4G wireless technologies—the latest in wireless broadband.

“I know they have some distrust of the commercial carriers and they worry they won’t be able to get priority when they need it,” he said. “But we worked so hard to make this technologically sound.”

If the public safety community continues to fight the recommendations, Barnett said he worries they could lose the opportunity to receive the funding for the nationwide network.

“I’m afraid public safety will walk away without the D Block and without the funding,” he said. “It’s not just about cost savings. If we don’t grab this right now, we won’t get the interoperable network we need.”

Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, said having the full block of spectrum is the only way to ensure first responders will have the capacity they need for the coming years. Auction proceeds, he said, will not make up for the loss of the extra piece of spectrum. 

“We have a strong difference of opinion with the FCC chairman,” Harlin told The Hill. “We’d been led to believe that he would support our efforts, but he’s aggressively going forward with the plan.”

The Police Executive Research Forum held a conference Friday in which FCC officials and public safety executives met to air their differences, but little was resolved.

Public safety groups are recommending that Congress pass a law to allocate the full block of spectrum directly to public safety agencies. Then they would invite commercial carriers to partner with them to build out the network.

McEwen said he has the support of a number of commercial firms interested in sharing the spectrum, including Motorola, Alcatel Lucent, Northrop Grumman, Harris, Verizon Wireless and AT&T. 

California officials are especially ardent about changing the FCC’s mind. Massive forest fires rip through the state every year, but evacuations are complicated by the inability of first responders to talk to one another.

“It’s mission-critical for us to have absolute control of the spectrum bands to be able to talk effectively,” said San Diego Police Chief Bill Landsdowne. “The information we put on there is not only critical, it’s confidential. We can’t have that information going over commercial airwaves.”