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FCC D Block Priority: Interoperable,Sustainable Public Safety Net

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed trying to re-auction the D block of spectrum for a public-private partnership creating an interoperable emergency communications network, but the agency appears ready to work with Congress and others on an alternative that puts the spectrum directly in the hands of public safety.

Saying he is speaking for virtually all the the police chiefs, fire chiefs, sheriffs, and first responders, as well as governors, mayors and state legislators, San Jose police chief Robert Davis plans to tell a Senate Communications Subcommittee hearing audience that the D block of spectrum needs to be reallocated to public safety with sufficient funding to build and maintain the infrastructure.

That is according to prepared testimony for a Thursday morning hearing in the committee entitled "Keeping Us Safe: The Need for a Nationwide Public Safety Network."

The FCC proposed in the national broadband plan to try to re-auction the D block to commercial users, with the caveat that they would have to turn over their networks to first responders in an emergency. The FCC tried to auction it once before for that public/private partnership but failed to draw a minimum bid.

The public safety community has argued that a partnership is not the right way to go. "The notion that has been advanced by some wireless carriers that they should control the network and allow public safety to lease it. This simply will not work for public safety. A dropped call on a cell phone is an annoyance; in an emergency it literally can mean the difference between life and death. Public safety personnel must have coverage whenever and wherever we respond in an emergency," Davis said.

According to an FCC official speaking on background, rather than push for that partnership, look for the agency's message at the hearing Thursday to be that it stands ready to work with Congress and the public safety community and the wireless industry on a network that is truly interoperable, nationwide and technically feasible -- meaning that there is enough money to create and sustain it.

Davis, who not only heads the San Jose police but serves as president of the Major cities Chiefs Association, will be preaching to the choir when it comes to Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who last month introduced a bill that would allocate spectrum and funds to create a national, interoperable public safety network.

While the hearing is billed as a general fact-finder, Rockefeller's bill will almost certainly be among the focuses of the gathering. And in case that hadn't been the plan, it will be after Davis's testimony if he remains true to the script. "Mr. Chairman, your bill, S. 3756 provides us exactly what we need to make this network a reality," he plans to tell the committee. "We thank you for your leadership, and we urge all of your colleagues in Congress to support your bill."

Testifying for the FCC will be Admiral James Barnett, chief of the Public Safety Bureau.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.