The fight to obtain additional wireless communications spectrum capable of providing police, firemen and emergency managers with the same capabilities most 15 year-olds have on their smart phones has been ongoing since the attacks of September 11, 2001, when outdated radios prevented firefighters and police from communicating evacuation orders. Hundreds died because they could not hear those orders.

And while little has changed in the decade since then, the Obama Administration last month publicly announced its support to transfer a swath of wireless spectrum known as the D block to first responder agencies for the purpose of building a nationwide, interoperable wireless public safety network – a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.

The decision puts the White House squarely at odds with a powerful faction of wireless companies that continue to pressure Congress for a public auction of the available spectrum. Those companies argue the spectrum is critical to American competitiveness in an increasingly wireless world and a sale would raise an estimated $28 billion that could be applied to deficit reduction.

“A lot of very serious interests concluded that you were not the top priority,” said Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to a gathering of public safety officials at the White House on June 16. “And in the budget negotiations, this is an issue, a revenue issue.”

Biden, who is a key member of the administration’s budget negotiating team, assured those present that funding would be made available to build the network for first responders, who, he said, need the spectrum more than the private sector.

D block allocation is the central issue in a key Senate Bill (S. 911) – the “Spectrum Act” – sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.).

The bill would allocate a 10 megahertz portion of the D-block directly to public safety, and allow the FCC to conduct incentive auctions of other spectrum bands to wireless companies and use the proceeds to launch and operate the wireless public safety net. The bill has passed the Senate Commerce Committee and must now get a floor vote and head to the House before the August recess for there to be a chance of reaching the president before the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Public safety agencies currently operate 10MHz of the 700MHz band. The additional 10MHz, however, would be contiguous and provide critical capabilities that are currently lacking, including in-building penetration of radio signals and vastly-improved multimedia.

Richard Mirgon, the First-Vice President of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, said the lion’s share of the blame for the country not accomplishing this key 9/11 Commission recommendation falls on the wireless industry, which has lobbied Congress ferociously for the option to buy the spectrum and share it with public safety agencies.

“The obstacles are a couple of the commercial carriers that want the spectrum for private services and argue that they can provide public safety with the services we need,” said Mirgon. “My rebuttal is pretty simple. If they have the ability to do that, how come they haven’t been offering it to public safety and why don’t they offer it today? The reality is they neither have the technology nor the desire to provide us with mission-critical data, video or voice technology.”

A group of nine wireless companies, including Sprint, has been at the center of the industry push for a commercial auction of the D block. Known as the Connect Public Safety Now coalition, they argue the private sector is best positioned to deploy a modern, 4G network for public safety and consumers while saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

AOL contacted both the Connect Public Safety Now coalition and Sprint, but both said they were unable to provide an official to comment.

John C. Gockley, Vice President of Legal and Regulatory Affairs for U.S. Cellular, one of the wireless carriers that testified before congress on April 12, said private sector ownership of the D block would actually help accomplish a public safety network sooner rather than later. “While we want to use the D block for private use and profit, it would not be at the expense of public safety,” said Gockley. “We think that both needs can be accomplished and that the resources that wireless carriers would bring – both technical and financial – would help accelerate the process.”

Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, said a private sector partner is a necessity for any public safety network, but public safety must control network access. “Those commercial carriers that desire the D block, want it. But public safety needs it,” said Johnson. “All the major wireless companies have said we will never give control of our networks to public safety.”

What Johnson is referring to is the public safety requirement known as “ruthless preemption,” which would give public safety agencies immediate and assured access to the network during a crisis.

The commercial wireless industry has refused to accommodate this requirement. In fact, the industry in 2008 balked at an FCC auction of the very same D block spectrum at issue now because the auction came with the stipulation that the carriers allow immediate public safety access when necessary and required a $1.3 billion reserve fund to build the public safety portion of the network.

Public Safety Alliance spokesman Sean Kirkendall points to a 2010 report by police, fire and EMS organizations in New York that lists a dozen major incidents since 9/11 during which commercial wireless networks became overloaded and unusable by first responders.

“They don’t build their systems to a public safety grade or cover rural areas,” said Kirkendall. “It’s not in their business case. We all understand the competition issue. We want competition, but not at the expense of public safety.”

What The D Block Could Do For Public Safety

  • Mobile Crime Scene Video / Photo Sharing
  • Automated License Plate Recognition
  • Live Video (aircraft, mobile units, security cameras)
  • In-Building Penetration of Voice, Data, Video
  • Access to Floor Plans, Building Data
  • Automated Vehicle Location
  • Patient Tracking, Telemedicine
  • Real-Time Transmission of Medical Data