President Barack Obama signed into law today a tax cut extension bill that includes long-awaited provisions for setting aside wireless communications spectrum to help build a nationwide public safety network for first responder organizations.
The allocation to public safety organizations of the much-needed wireless spectrum, known as the 700 MHz D-Block, comes exactly 10 years, 23 weeks and 4 days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – the event that highlighted in agonizing detail the inability of firemen, police and emergency responders to communicate in a timely, effective manner.
Public safety professionals have been engaged in a pitched battle with private wireless companies who have lobbied hard to get their hands on the D-Block spectrum for private commercial use. In particular, 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, the group of companies has argued that the private sector is best positioned to deploy a modern, 4G network for public safety and consumers while saving taxpayers billions of dollars.
Public safety agencies currently operate 10MHz of the 700MHz band. The additional spectrum provided under the new law, however, would be contiguous and provide critical capabilities that are currently lacking, including in-building penetration of radio signals and vastly-improved multimedia for mobile devices.
Funding for the eventual build out of the public safety network would be covered partially through $7 billion that is expected to be raised through incentive auctions to wireless carriers of underutilized spectrum currently owned by television broadcasters. That is significantly less than the $11 billion in auction proceeds that first responder organizations were expecting.
But in a recent blog post, Christopher E. Wilson, director of E-Commerce & Telecommunications for TechAmerica, said although the auctions could raise $25 billion, they are not likely to begin for several years.
The law specifically calls for the establishment of a First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, within the National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA) to act as the licensee of the new spectrum and to oversee the establishment of a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network.
FirstNet will be led by the Secretary of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney General, the Director of the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB), and 12 state, local and private sector public safety experts appointed by the Secretary of Commerce.
The Public Safety Alliance (PSA), which represents nine of the major national public safety associations, has not favored the establishment of FirstNet, calling it potentially burdensome, costly and contentious. Instead, the PSA has supported the establishment of a not-for-profit corporation to oversee construction and operation of the network.
The core network would consist of national and regional data centers, and connectivity to first responder radio networks, the public Internet and the public switched telephone system.
The law also calls for the establishment of an Interoperability Board consisting of experts from the government and the wireless broadband industry. Working with the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Department of Homeland Security, the board gets 90 days to develop minimum technical requirements based on the commercial standards for Long Term Evolution (LTE) service to ensure nationwide interoperability for the public safety network.
The legislation also includes funding for research, development and deployment of Next Generation 9-1-1 technologies. The Public Safety Alliance (PSA) applauded the inclusion of Next Generation 9-1-1 implementation as part of the law.
In a statement shortly after the bill passed Congress, the PSA said when “taken together with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) National Broadband Plan, this legislation provides public safety with a clear blueprint for realizing comprehensive interoperability of our emergency communications nationwide, and secures the path forward for public safety communications for decades to come.”
National Association of Counties (NACo) Executive Director Larry E. Naake said the legislation provides first responders, including county public safety officials, reliable public safety communications capabilities for years to come.
“NACo is thankful that Congress has finally passed this life-saving legislation,” Naake said. “More than 10 years after 9/11 our nation’s first responders will now have critical access to the most reliable emergency communication systems available.”