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Waxman: Emergency System Needs Upgrade

The 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina showed what happens when public safety officials lack a reliable means to communicate in the midst of a disaster. Lives were imperiled and lost and response efforts impeded when communication networks failed and firefighters and police could not share urgent information with each other.

In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the 9/11 commission made more than 40 recommendations to Congress. Most of these have been implemented, improving our national preparedness. But one key deficiency identified by the 9/11 commission remains unaddressed: nationwide interoperable communications for public safety.

At long last, serious efforts are finally under way to provide public safety officials with the communication networks they need to keep us safe. Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission proposed building a public safety network as part of its National Broadband Plan. And this month, I joined with Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and our ranking members, Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), to release a bipartisan staff draft of the Public Safety Broadband Act. The legislation would direct the FCC, in consultation with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, to establish a national broadband network for public safety.

The staff discussion draft meets three essential goals. First, the draft authorizes construction of the network to begin immediately. This is crucial because the FCC estimates that delay could mean significantly increased costs β€” up to three times as high.

Second, the draft leaves no part of the country behind. Without nationwide deployment, the public safety network will consist of a patchwork of new broadband technologies and old analog radios and will be no more interoperable than it is today. Achieving this goal requires federal funding. The FCC estimates the total cost of the network to be $12 billion to $16 billion over 10 years. The discussion draft makes a significant down payment by directing that the proceeds of spectrum auctions, including the “D Block,” be dedicated to building the public safety network.

Third, the draft recognizes that the solution to our interoperability problem should not disrupt competition in the wireless marketplace. By allowing more providers to operate systems near public safety in the D Block portion of the 700 megahertz spectrum band, public safety will have more choices for commercial partners. More choice translates into better pricing and better service for first responders and the general public.

The amount of money that can be raised through the spectrum auctions contemplated in the discussion draft is uncertain. Some analysts suggest the auctions might yield up to $11 billion in revenue; others have lower estimates. As we work to identify additional spectrum to address our growing broadband needs, we will need to require that a significant portion of future spectrum proceeds go first to providing additional support for the nationwide public safety network. The Obama administration was right to issue a recent executive order supporting this policy.

I know that the discussion draft does not satisfy all of the public safety community. Several associations and their corporate partners have launched a campaign to persuade Congress to give public safety the D Block rather than auction it to the highest bidder. But this singular focus on ownership of the D Block may undercut what we all want to achieve: a sustainable nationwide broadband network for public safety. In large cities such as New York or Los Angeles, the D Block could command high values, so public safety officials there could lease portions of the D Block to finance network construction. That is not an approach that will work for rural areas where there will be only limited demand for additional spectrum capacity.

Moreover, the FCC examined this issue and concluded that the reallocation of the D Block is not needed to meet public safety’s immediate or future needs. At a subcommittee hearing, one witness equated giving public safety the D Block with building a separate highway for public safety’s exclusive use at all times. And in this case, it is unclear whether there would be any funds to construct the exclusive highway if the D Block is given away.

Instead of transferring ownership of the D Block to public safety, the FCC plan β€” and our discussion draft β€” would give public safety the proceeds of the D Block auction and guarantee public safety priority and roaming access to an “emergency lane” of additional spectrum on technically comparable commercial networks. The FCC believes this will actually provide public safety with much greater capacity than it would get from the D Block alone. All five FCC commissioners believe this is the best approach for public safety, and the chairs of the 9/11 commission noted that the FCC’s plan “offers a realistic framework to move forward.”

Despite differences in approach, all parties want the same result. Sept. 11, 2011, marks the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. It is imperative that we act before then to make sure the communications failures of 9/11 and Katrina cannot happen again.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

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