Time to invest in public safety broadband plan

John Kneuer Former Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration

Earlier this year, the unveiling of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan took a giant step towards addressing a long-overdue problem – ensuring that our emergency workers and first responders have nationwide access to dependable wireless broadband communications.  This effort is commendable in its own right, but is also a continuation of national efforts to upgrade our public safety communications infrastructure that gained urgency in the aftermath of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Now, with the release of a bi-partisan bill in the House Energy and Commerce Committee Congress has the opportunity to ensure that the FCC can build on recent successes and avoid the mistakes of the past.

Prior to 9/11 and Katrina, public safety communications policy was largely confined to state and local budget planning and spectrum policies at the FCC.  In their aftermath, however, it became clear that this status quo – which produced a patch-work of public safety networks that couldn’t interoperate with one another and were too often obsolete – was no longer acceptable.

To address these problems, Congress created a two-fold strategy to bring federal-level coordination – as well as capital and spectrum resources – to ensure our public safety networks were both interoperable and up-to-date.

The first part of the strategy took $1 billion of the revenue generated from auctioning former broadcast spectrum to fund a Public Safety Interoperable Communications (“PSIC”) program.  To ensure that this $1 billion was spent effectively, the PSIC program would only be available to those state and local jurisdictions that could demonstrate they had measured the interoperability gaps in their public safety networks and had a DHS-approved plan to fill those gaps.  By combining federal oversight with conditional grants, the PSIC program made enormous strides in ensuring that disparate public safety agencies could communicate with one another during an emergency.

Unfortunately, the second part of the two-pronged strategy was less successful.  Under this plan, the FCC granted public safety 10 MHz of the former broadcast spectrum that would be combined with 10 MHz of commercial spectrum – the so-called D-Block.  The idea was that public safety and the D-Block licensee would form a public-private partnership:  the D-Block licensee would get access to public safety’s 10MHz, and in exchange the D-Block licensee would build a nationwide network that could be used by both public safety users and its own customers.

While this plan seemed simple, it ultimately failed in execution as uncertainties surrounding the terms of the partnership prevented any commercial entity from submitting an eligible bid for the D-Block.

Now the FCC is struggling with how to resolve the un-auctioned D-Block, and at the same time help public safety get access to wireless broadband capabilities that they need.  To its credit, the FCC has proposed auctioning the D-Block and providing the auction revenue to fund the build-out of public safety networks.  As the experience of the PSIC program demonstrates, the FCC can achieve the best outcome when spectrum resources are combined with thoughtful federal oversight as well as the money necessary to invest in cutting edge communications equipment.

Nevertheless, there are those who oppose the FCC’s plan, arguing that the D-Block should not be auctioned, but rather given to public safety agencies that will either fund their own networks or enter into market-by-market public private partnerships.

In today’s public sector budget climate  – where states and entire countries face the realistic possibility of bankruptcy – it simply isn’t credible to expect that general funds will be made available to build out the networks public safety requires.   Likewise, the failed D-Block experiment demonstrates that the uncertainties surrounding a potential public-private partnership are too great to risk the future of our public safety communications infrastructure.

In the past decade, mobile broadband has become an integral part of our lives. From the smart phones and wireless platforms you and I use daily to share information, to paramedics and firefighters responding to an emergency situation, we all depend on efficient and dependable broadband networks to communicate with one another.

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan represents a significant and responsible step forward in meeting public safety’s spectrum needs.  With the support of Congress this plan can be put into action, and we can ensure that Public Safety agencies have both the spectrum they need and the funding necessary to ensure that this spectrum is put to effective use.

John Kneuer served as the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the George W. Bush Administration.