Homeland Security and Public Safety

Public Safety D-Block Victory a ‘Big Deal’ (Opinion)

The legislation provides spectrum and funding, allows public safety input and ensures a national governance structure.

Public safety officials celebrated when President Barack Obama signed into law payroll-tax-cut-extension legislation and, with it, reallocated the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety.

For nearly a decade, public safety officials have fought for increased spectrum to develop a nationwide, wireless broadband safety network and take advantage of long term evolution (LTE) technology. This legislation gives 20 MHz of spectrum for the network.

The legislation comes with $7 billion in federal funding to help build out the national network, which is a good start, said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust. Of that amount, $100 million will go to the National Institute of Standards and Technology over 10 years for research and development.

The legislation provides spectrum and funding, allows public safety input and ensures a national governance structure. Future auctions of unused spectrum will provide revenues for the initial funding of the system, but partnerships withcommercial carriers and vendors will be crucial to its success.

Under the legislation, an independent First Responder Network Authority will be created to manage the network. The authority will include a board composed of public safety, commercial, federal, state and local officials to manage development of the network and oversee the D-Block license.

Governance at the state and local levels will be a critical factor as well. Panel members at a general session at the International Wireless Communications Expo in February disagreed about the value of the 30 or so jurisdictions that received FCC waivers to build out their own LTE networks.

“A lot of good work is being done and shouldn’t go to waste,” McEwen said when discussing some of the waiver jurisdictions. Those already granted a waiver should be allowed to continue their systems, he said, but no new waivers should be granted.

Another member disagreed, saying local involvement is beneficial and should be encouraged. The member added that local involvement will ultimately be critical for success of a national system and that participation would be vital in a self-sustaining, self-funded system.

Indeed, McEwen acknowledged a concern that some states would “step up and do it” and some wouldn’t. “And if they don’t, there has to be a plan to fill in for those states where they don’t aggressively do their job,” he told Government Technology magazine.

Reallocation of the D-Block section of the airwaves was a victory for public safety but it didn’t come without Congress taking its “pound of flesh,” as McEwen put it. He said the public safety community fought hard to avoid giving up the 700 MHz narrowband spectrum and didn’t have to in the end. But as its pound of flesh, Congress at the last minute demanded that the T-Band (470 MHz to 512 MHz) be scheduled for reallocation in nine or 10 years, thus radio systems operating in that band will have to abandon it. But that didn’t detract from the public safety community’s elation. “It’s a big deal,” McEwen said.

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.