A plan for progress with a do-nothing Congress

John Kneuer Former Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration
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The election is over. And while the pundits are arguing over whether the American people are more concerned with job creation, the deficit, or some other issue, they pretty much agree on one point: nothing much is going to get done in Washington.

Depressing. And (as usual with the conventional pundit-wisdom) not necessarily so. Even though a divided Congress may have a hard time moving legislation, there are important accomplishments that can be achieved without any Congressional action.

For example, how about a plan that raises billions of dollars for the treasury, produces billions more in job-creating private investment, and improves our homeland security? Sound too good to be true? Well it is.

It’s called the D-Block, and it’s a spectrum auction the FCC proposed as part of its National Broadband Plan. Under the FCC’s plan, 10 MHz of valuable spectrum will be auctioned for commercial use. This auction will raise billions of dollars and spur billions more in investment as the auction winners spread broadband wireless services across the country. Better still, revenues from this auction can be set aside for public safety agencies to build their own advanced broadband networks. And because this spectrum is right next to spectrum that is already assigned for public safety, it’s the perfect home for a public/private partnership where these new public safety networks can leverage existing commercial networks so that first responders can finally have access to the kinds of advanced technologies we all take for granted.

So what’s the problem? Some have argued that public safety agencies should have the D-Block spectrum, and they’ll find the money they need to build their networks somewhere else.

As a former head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the Department of Commerce, I can tell you that it takes a lot of money to build networks, and that the government doesn’t have a lot of it. At a time of historic budget deficits and public concern about government spending, the federal government must find a way to deliver services in a more cost-effective manner. And the idea that the federal government is going to find the $50-100 billion that it would cost to build a public safety broadband network when there is another less costly alternative simply isn’t credible.

The D-Block auction plan has the support of the FCC, and it ensures that the public safety network is a national network where all first responders have access to lifesaving technologies. An auction is the most effective means to provide the interoperable broadband network public safety agencies so desperately need.

The danger of not acting now is real. If public safety agencies are simply given another band of spectrum, with no plans for funding, and no plan for leveraging commercial networks and technologies, the cause for public safety broadband will be set back years, if not decades.

Already, public safety agencies rely primarily on push-to-talk two-way radios. Although these radios are robust and ensure critical voice communications, that’s all they do. Reach in your pocket or purse and pull out your “phone” (an increasingly anachronistic term if ever there was one). If you are one of the tens of millions of Americans with an iPhone or similar device, you can access the internet, take and send pictures and videos, and use sophisticated mapping software and GPS capabilities. The idea that an average teenager has more sophisticated communications capabilities than the average cop or fireman is absurd.

So, while Congress is unlikely to achieve much of anything during the lame-duck session and even well into next year, the FCC has an opportunity to make some real progress on jobs, deficit reduction, and homeland security. They should take it.

John M.R. 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.