House GOP fears big taxpayer tab for public safety network

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee remain wedded to the goal of building a cost-friendly public safety network even though the White House and senators in both parties have backed a more expensive option.

A GOP memo drafted to prepare staff for a Wednesday hearing, obtained by The Hill, shows that cost is a serious hang-up for the committee Republicans as Congress debates how to build a communications network for police and firefighters. 

The public safety lobby wants Congress to hand over a valuable chunk of airwaves known as the D Block along with billions in federal funding, a proposal with broad backing — but not among House Republicans.

"While we all share the goal of creating a nationwide interoperable public safety network, questions remain about how to achieve it," the memo says. 

The Energy and Commerce memo pointed out that the center of gravity in this debate has moved away from fiscal hawks since the last Congress. This year, the administration sided with public safety advocates. 

"In the last Congress, there was bipartisan agreement in the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the best approach was to auction the 10 MHz D-block for commercial purposes and encourage parties to create a public-private partnership. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan reached the same conclusion and Chairman [Julius] Genachowski continues to stand by that recommendation," the memo says. 

The memo says public safety groups want the valuable spectrum for free despite the impact on the deficit.

"Many public safety officials believe ... that the D-block should be reallocated to them for free," the memo says, noting that "the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has already scored the D-block as being sold pursuant to the [digital television] legislation and that reallocating it now would add in the neighborhood of $3 billion to America’s deficit — at a time when neither our Committee nor the Congress has a penny to spare."

The memo cites estimates for cost of the network as ranging from $12 billion to $20 billion. The GOP questions whether money and airwaves are really all the public safety community needs to ensure a network is built, pointing out that these ingredients have not led to seamless communications in the past. 

"In the ten years since September 11, 2001, Congress has allocated $13 billion and cleared 24 MHz of spectrum nationwide for public safety use, yet First Responders still do not have ubiquitous interoperable voice communications and scant few, if any, have interoperable broadband," the memo says. 

The memo notes that long-term investment is essential. 

"Regardless of where one falls in this debate, sound federal spectrum policy and targeted, responsible, long-term network investment will play a critical role in bringing interoperable communications to First Responders," the memo says. 

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is ready to mark up his bill that reallocates the D Block, and generally has support from ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced their own bill on the issue last week that takes a starkly different approach from Rockefeller’s. It would reallocate the D Block but not authorize incentive spectrum auctions, a top Federal Communications Commission request.

Witnesses at Wednesday's Energy and Commerce hearing include Jeffrey Johnson of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, Chris Imlay of the American Radio Relay League, Joe Hanna of Directions, Dennis Martinez of the Harris RF Communications Division and Joseph Hanley of Telephone and Data Systems.

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