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FCC Says It Approved PTC Spectrum for Northeast Corridor in March

The FCC signaled Friday that it had approved an Amtrak request for positive train control spectrum only two days after a final amendment was submitted in March and had been expediting, and would continue to do so, requests for such spectrum.

An FCC source pointed out that with two different positive train control (PTC) systems, passenger and freight, it was not simply a case of finding spectrum along rail rights-of-way and handing it over.

With some fingers being pointed at the FCC, and questions from the Hill, about the commission's role in PTC spectrum and antenna issues in the wake of the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia, FCC Wireless Telecommunications chief Roger Sherman weighed in with a blog on Friday.

Following the accident NTSB and Amtrak officials talked about the need for PTC (which has been mandated by Congress by year's end but was not installed on the tracks where the derailment occurred) and how it could have prevented the accident.

"We continue to be actively involved in helping freight and commuter trains such as Amtrak acquire spectrum," Sherman said. "In fact, the FCC approved Amtrak’s application for spectrum for the Washington D.C. to New York corridor after an expedited review and just two days after Amtrak submitted a final amendment to the agency in March 2015."

"The railroads are seeking commercial spectrum to deploy PTC, which – by law – must be acquired at auction or from third parties," continued Sherman. "Since Congress passed the law in 2008 requiring PTC [by Dec,. 31, 2015], the FCC has been working closely with railroads and Amtrak to identify available spectrum on the secondary market and to approve transactions quickly."

Sherman pointed out that the railroads are the ones who need to activate and use the technology and Congress did not fund PTC spectrum acquisition.

"In 2008, Congress passed a law requiring Amtrak and other commuter and freight railroads to deploy interoperable PTC systems by December 31, 2015, but did not designate spectrum, a finite resource, for PTC use or make funds available for railroads to acquire access to spectrum."

"The Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration has primary authority to ensure PTC systems are activated and work properly. As the nation’s communications agency, the FCC helps facilitate spectrum acquisition by freight and commuter trains. We also manage the mandatory historic preservation and environmental reviews of PTC system infrastructure." There have been some issues with poles on tribal lands.

Only hours before the derailment, in a Senate budget hearing, Wheeler had talked about positive train control, saying the issue has two parts: spectrum and the placement of antennas. He said the FCC had recently eased power restrictions for commuter lines to reduce the number of poles required, and opened up and transferred spectrum, including that spectrum to Amtrak in the Northeast corridor.

Wheeler also said that since he had become chairman, the FCC had instituted new procedures such that the agency was able to process more applications for placement of the poles that hold the antennas than the railroads were currently submitting. He said the FCC could now handle 2,800 requests a week, which he said the railroads could not keep pace with.

"I think we are making some real serious progress on PTC," he told the senators.

Back in February, in response to a letter from Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) about the status of PTC deployment, Wheeler said: "PTC has the potential to save lives, prevent injuries, and avoid extensive property damage. Expediting PTC deployment remains one of the Commission's highest priorities, and we continue to devote substantial resources toward this goal."

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.