My Spectrum or Yours?


First-responder groups clash with regulators over how to build a next- generation national wireless communications network for public safety.

A battle over control of a small slice of the nation's air waves has put the law enforcement and first-responder community at loggerheads with the federal government and Congress.

The battle is over the final remaining10 megahertz (MHz) of unlicensed wireless spectrum in the 700 MHz band, called the D Block. For years, that little piece of spectrum has been central to plans to create a nationwide inter-operable, wireless broadband communications network for public safety.

Federal regulators, first responders and elected officials agree that such a nationwide system is badly needed. Almost a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 2001, first responders from different jurisdictions and agencies still often cannot talk to each other during an emergency. At the same time, existing systems can't always handle the dramatic increases in traffic seen during emergencies. One widely cited example is the 2006 incident during which Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle crashed a small private plane into a Manhattan apartment building. New York's public safety officials reported at the time that responders at the scene couldn't use their commercial wireless cell phones because of network capacity limitations. Post-event analysis showed that even officials with priority access had problems, since commercial wireless networks weren't scaled to handle such traffic spikes.

No one disputes the argument that the systems now in use across the country by public safety agencies are crippled by the lack of broadband data services such as text messaging, photos, diagrams, and streaming video.

However, that's just about where the agreement stops.

Auctioning the D Block

By congressional mandate, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is required to auction off rights to the D Block that some experts estimate to be worth as much as $3 billion. The proceeds of the auction would go to the federal government and they haven't been earmarked to pay for building a new public safety network, according to FCC officials.

But public safety officials say they need the 10 MHz of D Block spectrum, combined with an additional 10 MHz for public safety broadband already set aside for them in the 700 MHz band, to build a new network that would let them take advantage of fourth generation (4G) mobile technologies currently in development which would supply first responders with a host of new communications capabilities.

Although not all public safety organizations have joined the fight, most of the country's police, fire and first-responder organizations are lobbying Congress to lift the auction requirements and reallocate the D Block for first responder use. They are supported by state and municipal elected officials, some key members of congress and some large telecommunications firms.

But arrayed against them is a coalition that argues the quickest and most economical way of creating a next-generation public safety broadband network is through commercial incentives. That camp includes federal regulators, a powerful member of Congress, a national police organization, and other telecommunications companies.

Priority Access

The FCC released in March a plan to expand broadband use nationwide that included a section on building a broadband network for public safety.

The plan recommended that the FCC quickly hold an auction to license the D block for commercial use. But it also recommended that licensees throughout the entire 700 MHz spectrum should be required to provide first responders roaming and priority access in return for a fair price if a public safety network is unavailable. The plan also called for the FCC to require the winning D Block licensee to operate networks on the same standard that the public safety licensee does, and it recommended allocating grants for building out the public safety network.

An earlier attempt by the FCC to auction off the D Block that would have imposed stiffer public safety requirements on the successful licensee failed when no one came up with the required minimum bid.

The FCC maintains that it has already made parts of the 700 MHz spectrum accessible to priority public safety needs, including a 10 MHz block utilized as a nationwide broadband spectrum for first responders . And it argues that building the kind of stand-alone public safety network called for by advocates would cost time and money?about $15.7 billion (over 10 years). In contrast, the FCC estimates that it would cost only $6.5 billion to piggy-back on commercial users' efforts to build out the D Block.

“If we don't start the network in the next year or two, then the commercial entities will go ahead and build out their broadband networks, their 4G broadband networks,” says retired Navy Rear Admiral James Barnett, Jr., the chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

“After that,” he adds, “The price to build a public safety network almost doubles.”

But first responders and their supporters, including elected state and municipal officials, say the FCC is missing the point. In order to build the capacity they need in order to take maximum advantage of Internet-based mobile voice, data and video communications, authorities argue they need the control over the D Block that can only be ensured by direct allocation.

First responder groups say they envision a network that would let them use broadband data services such as streaming video not available in most systems being used today. Moreover, they want broadband to benefit first responders at all levels of government in order to head off the kind of paralysis that developed after the 9/11 attacks, when a number of jurisdictions were unable to talk to each other in real time.

Videos shot from a police car, for example, could be transmitted in real time with a designated broadband spectrum rather than recorded to video and then cumbersomely replayed later, according to Yucel Ors, director of legislative affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International. “Once you have the spectrum, once you're starting to use it, you're going to see the proliferation of (similar) technologies and equipment,” he said in a recent interview with The Crime Report.

And to underline their argument, advocates of earmarking the D Block for public safety purposes point out that previous priority-access agreements with commercial carriers worked well on paper, but not in practice.

Controlling the spectrum

Ors said responders need to be able to control network traffic in an emergency the same way they can on a highway. “At the end of the day the number one concern (for them) is control, who controls the spectrum when they need it,” he added.

Another reason public safety is particularly keen on the D Block is because it sits on the spectrum next to the 10 MHz already allocated to public safety for broadband.

Public safety officials don't have another opportunity to get any more of the 700 MHz spectrum, said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) Corporation, a non-profit selected by the FCC as licensee for the 10 MHz already allocated to public safety, in a recent interview. “Once it's auctioned, it's gone,”

According to McEwen, space in the 700 MHz band is important because it lets first responders use slightly modified commercial off-the-shelf devices that are affordable and currently in wide use.

“If you give us spectrum in some other band to add to ours, we will need unique devices that are only good for public safety because nobody will be in that band but us.”

The FCC's Barnett disagrees, observing that the commission's approach is based on ensuring that the nation's public safety infrastructure keeps up technologically with the commercial networks. And he adds what may be the clincher in the argument: lawmakers are unlikely to appropriate an additional $6.5 billion to build out the public safety network if they are forced to give up auction revenue.

The larger question remains whether in today's budget-strained environment public agencies could even afford to pay for any level of expanded internet access without federal assistance. “What's bothering us is that they're not even willing to give us auction proceeds which would be at least $1 billion,” says McEwen. “What would give us any confidence they're going to give us other money?”

Congressional Support

Proponents of reallocating the D Block for public safety got a boost last month, when Republican Congressman Peter King of New York introduced legislation to force the issue. Rep. King, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said the 700 MHz band spectrum is ideal for public safety because the signal’s frequency lets it work relatively well inside of buildings.

The bill received bi-partisan support, a rarity in today's political atmosphere. “We would be remiss if we didn't reserve that spectrum for our first responders,” said co-sponsor Yvette Clarke, a New York Democrat who chairs the homeland committee's Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology Subcommittee, in an interview.

All the same, it's likely to be an uphill battle in Congress. Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee said in a press release that the FCC's plan to auction the D Block is “an essential recommendation.” He also supports using federal public funds to support the build out of a public safety network. News reports have indicated that Boucher may introduce a bill championing the auction.

But commercial carriers also appear to be split on the issue. According to Ors of the Public Safety Communications Officials association, the campaign to award the D Block to first responders is supported by large carriers such as AT&T and Verizon, which also happen to already control a large amount of spectrum in the 700 MHz band. Perhaps not surprisingly, T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel, which don't control any spectrum in the 700 MHz band, are part of the coalition advocating for the auction.

So, in fact, are some law enforcement groups. The Fraternal Order of Police sent a letter to the FCC in February announcing its support for an auction, on the grounds that making it possible for a carrier other than Verizon and AT&T to win a license in the 700 MHz space would head off a “duopoly” that may be hard for public safety officials to negotiate with.

The arguments may be coming to a head. Barnett said he thinks FCC's wireless bureau will kick off the rulemaking for the D Block auction sometime this summer. He said the auction should occur sometime in the first or second quarters of calendar year 2011.

Ben Bain is a staff reporter with Federal Computer Week magazine based in Washington. He can be reached at

Graphic via International Association of Chiefs of Police

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