FCC’s Barnett earns his stripes in battle over safety network

In the spring of 2010, Jamie Barnett found himself in a bureaucratic mess. 

The longtime Navy admiral was caught in the middle of a protracted Washington battle between major public safety organizations and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Barnett, the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau chief, had spent nearly a year with his division crafting a plan to build a nationwide communications network for police and firefighters. 

But just as soon as the FCC’s plan was released, a backlash began. In a perhaps unprecedented show of unity, almost every public safety group in the country rose up against the proposal, hoping instead to secure more airwaves through an alternate plan. 

“We did a cost model and came down where we did,” Barnett said, noting that the lower cost of FCC’s plan could help ensure the success of the network if the project weren’t granted federal funding — which Congress is still debating and which public safety groups still have not been granted through legislation. 

“I certainly don’t want to see a situation where only the states or cities that are wealthy can pay for [the network],” Barnett said.

The fight played out at the White House and at the FCC and is still raging on Capitol Hill as the sides try to come to a decision before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

At issue is whether to allocate a valuable chunk of airwaves, the D Block, to public safety agencies; the FCC had recommended the airwaves be auctioned to commercial providers, which could then share the spectrum with safety groups. 

Yet in spite of steering the FCC through a fractious telecom battle, Barnett managed to win fans in the least likely of places. 

“Coming from a military background, he understands folks like me in public safety,” says Charles Dowd, the New York Police Department communication chief and a leading opponent of the FCC’s public safety proposal.

“Obviously, despite some very pointed disagreements on the issue surrounding the [public safety network], working with Adm. Barnett has been a pleasure,” Dowd said. 

Dick Mirgon, the former president of the public safety lobby APCO International, which also opposes the FCC’s plan, said Barnett has been careful to listen to the concerns of public safety groups and make sure the relationship remains positive. 

“He’s a gentleman, and I couldn’t have more respect for the guy,” Mirgon said. 

The dispute with public safety groups has been a headache at the FCC this year, with President Obama and Senate Democrats eventually siding with the safety agencies. 

The intractable stance of the public safety side, which has repeatedly come to Washington to lobby Congress, complete with uniforms, fire trucks and police cars, often provokes eye-rolling from FCC staff exasperated with its position.

But if Barnett shares that exasperation, he doesn’t give the slightest hint in person. 

“They have done a super job at promoting their view,” he said recently during an interview with The Hill at his office. “Being singularly united has made them very effective. The points of disagreement have been contentious and have dominated some of the discussion, but the way I see it is, we agree on so much else.”

Barnett’s extensive military background differentiates him at the FCC, where colleagues call him “Jamie” or “chief” or “the admiral.” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who tapped Barnett for the job, opts for “admiral.”

Barnett spent 32 years in the Navy. His last position in active duty was deputy commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, which has 9,000 sailors serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Democrat who grew up in Mississippi, Barnett hasn’t been afraid to get political. He ran for a House seat in 1994 but lost as the GOP swept the elections, and he advocated for gay rights in the military as the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” debate heated up over the last several years. 

His military career took him all over the world, through war zones, across the the Middle East, and Asia. His move to Washington a decade ago was defined by the Sept. 11 attacks, which occurred during his first month in the city.

As the 10th anniversary of the attacks approaches, the FCC has backed off any strident advocacy for its position on the public safety network. 

It’s instead waiting to see if Congress can manage to pass a bill funding the network and devoting the D Block to public safety groups, a possibility that still faces tall obstacles, including opposition from many House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans.

Barnett will be tasked with ushering the FCC through the hurdles that remain for the communications network — whether the public safety lobby gets its legislation or not.

“We can make this network whether the [D Block spectrum] is reallocated or whether it’s auctioned,” Barnett said. “If the FCC could do it by itself, we would’ve loved to. But it’s going to take teamwork.”