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Guest Blog: Good Spectrum Policy Can Provide Broadband, Promote Public Safety, Create Jobs

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, filed the following guest blog on broadband spectrum policy. His views do not necessarily reflect those of Broadcasting & Cable.

The East Coast earthquake aftershocks and Hurricane Irene winds had barely subsided before some invoked them to support reallocating 10 MHz of commercial spectrum called the “D-block” to public safety users. Now that everyone has had a chance to assess the facts, however, a very different story is emerging.The hurricane impacted 6,500 of the approximately 46,000 cell sites in the affected counties - less than 15 percent of the sites. What’s more, only 1 percent of the outages was caused by physical damage to a cell site. The vast majority was caused by power outages, post-hurricane flooding and backhaul problems. Public safety reported similarly good news on the survivability of its networks.

As for the earthquake, no cell sites failed. And according to the Federal Communications Commission, as well as police and fire chiefs up and down the East Coast, First Responders’ voice networks capably handled any increased call traffic among public safety officials during the earthquake. Commercial voice networks experienced brief periods of congestion as large numbers of Americans tried to call each other, but the congestion subsided relatively quickly under the circumstances.

Commercial voice networks are designed to adapt to spikes in demand, but cannot handle an unlimited number of simultaneous calls. One national carrier said that in the five minutes after the earthquake, its network received more than 2.5 million voice call requests in the Washington, D.C., region alone. That’s more than five times the normal call volume.

The good news is that the 4G wireless voice services that commercial carriers are scheduled to begin deploying in the next year or so can provide additional calling capacity in times of peak demand. For this reason, 4G wireless technologies can help alleviate the problem, but additional spectrum for commercial wireless services is what is needed to solve the problem.

The commercial spectrum shortage should come as no surprise. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, President Obama’s budget and legislation on both sides of Capitol Hill aim to address the problem. Unfortunately, the debate has become mired in a false choice between providing for commercial users and providing for our nation’s First Responders. The legislation we are working on in the House Energy and Commerce Committee provides for both.

To meet the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, Congress passed the 2005 DTV Transition and Public Safety Act, which required nationwide clearing of 24 MHz of spectrum for First Responders. The FCC says that spectrum is sufficient to meet public safety’s needs. Now that the DTV transition is complete, we can start building the nationwide public safety network.

A few public safety officials have started using some portions of the 24 MHz. They are not doing so in a nationally coordinated fashion, however. They are also using some of that spectrum for old-fashioned, narrowband voice networks. The sooner all First Responders start fully utilizing the spectrum, as well as migrate from narrowband voice to broadband, the better.

Broadband networks are even more resilient than narrowband networks, which is evident in the fact that commercial email and access to sites like Facebook continued to flow during the earthquake. And once First Responders migrate away from narrowband, voice simply becomes an application on the data network. Public safety officials can then use the entire 24 MHz of cleared spectrum for broadband.

The House Energy and Commerce legislation would help accomplish that by creating a national governance structure to guarantee nationwide interoperability and help build the network throughout the country.

The legislation would also help meet the growing demand for commercial broadband, creating jobs and kick-starting the economy in the process. It would do so by preserving auction of the D-block for commercial use, as required by the 2005 DTV legislation, along with other spectrum. To do otherwise would cost federal taxpayers the $2.7 billion the Congressional Budget Office has attributed to auction of the D-block. That’s money that we need right now to reduce the deficit.

When the recent earthquake and hurricane struck, the networks were robust enough to meet First Responders’ voice needs and support broadband data communications like Facebook and Twitter. However, average citizens struggled to make contact with loved ones or 911 with a simple phone call. Since First Responders already control-but have not fully utilized-24 Mhz of spectrum for broadband data communications, does it make sense to give that community even more spectrum from the D-block? Or would it be better utilized elsewhere in the marketplace where the need appears greater, if the natural disasters of late are any indicator?

In any event, Congress still needs to address voice interoperability, but that’s not a capacity issue that requires additional spectrum to solve.

Broadband networks for both voice and data are the future of communications in America. While all of the communications networks played important roles in shepherding our country through the recent events-from broadcasters and HAM radio operators to wireless broadband and public safety radios-the one thing we know is that Americans are more connected than ever. If we want the innovation that has put the Internet in the palm of your hand to both continue for the commercial sector and embrace public safety users, Congress must address the need for additional spectrum for commercial networks and development of the existing 24 MHz for First Responders. We plan to make that a reality.