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Guest Blog: Allocate the D-Block

A guest blog fromDavid Paulison, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from 2005 to 2009. He is currently for senior partner with consulting firm Global Emergency Solutions.

I write to offer a different opinion to Chairman Greg Walden’s (R-Ore) op-ed on the spectrum auction of D-block.  Some key factors were overlooked in Mr. Walden’s argument.The Congressman is correct that the Congressional Budget Office anticipates that the auction of D-block would bring $2.7 billion to government coffers. However, he does not mention that because the D-block is adjacent to existing public safety broadband spectrum, it will cause public safety users grave interference problems - since public safety relies on mission critical voice this problem will need to be mitigated immediately. This mitigation will cost $3 billion to $5 billion. Is Mr. Walden asking that we in the public safety community foot that bill so a commercial entity can profit from more spectrum?

As for jump starting the economy and creating jobs, I agree with the Congressman - building-out the D-block for use will generate jobs and help move toward a more robust U.S. economy. What Mr. Walden fails to note is that the process of auctioning the D-block will take at least 18 months and the winning bidder will decide when to build. In contrast, allocating D-block for public safety’s use will create jobs now — we are eager to participate in building-out a public safety broadband network that will provide us the capacity and interoperability we need to protect American lives.

Mr. Walden’s legislation calls on the conversion of public safety’s 700 MHz narrowband to broadband. On paper this comes across as an innovative solution, but overlooks the problems and high costs of moving public safety users currently on the narrowband off of this spectrum during conversion and then returning them post-conversion. It also fails to acknowledge that many in public safety only recently purchased systems to operate on this narrowband. Forcing them to convert to broadband use means mandating the purchase of new broadband equipment — yet another unfunded mandate from Washington.

The second impediment to Mr. Walden’s narrowband conversion proposal is that mission critical voice on broadband will not be available for at least five years. The standards bodies that create the rules around open access and multiple sourcing have not even started work on the standard that mission critical voice would be built upon.

While Mr. Walden contends that only a “few public safety officials have started using some portions of the 24 MHz” allocated to them in the 700 MHz band, the reality is that there are currently 246 licenses representing 5,500 public safety agencies using the 700 MHz narrowband channels for mission critical voice operations.  Public safety is using this spectrum through the deployment of mission critical standards based P25 networks that are interoperable. Again, what do we do with the thousands of radios and hundreds of systems that are on those channels now if that spectrum is co-opted for conversion to broadband?

Further, the concept that public safety does not need more spectrum is simply untrue. Nationwide public safety currently pays commercial carriers $2 billion annually in roaming fees because many public safety agencies routinely reach capacity. Modern digital capabilities designed to help first responders save lives will require more spectrum in the future to capitalize on these improvements. The public safety community is asking for a mere two percent of the total 500 MHz that the Federal Communications Commission says will be needed.

Finally, during the recent East Coast earthquake, call processing on commercial networks was significantly impacted, and these delays lasted more than an hour. Public safety’s mission critical voice radio systems performed as expected with little or no outages or delays. However, mission critical data networks that were operating on carrier networks suffered delays similar to those of commercial voice. Clearly this is not the level of survivability that is needed or expected on public safety mission critical networks.

I join with thousands of other first responders and public safety personnel in asking Congress to provide us with one of the key tools we need to do our jobs: allocate D-block to public safety and help us to protect property and save lives.