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First Responder Network is Job One

The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing Wednesday on building out a national interoperable wireless communications network, with the consensus that it is high time, make that past time, that such a network were created.

There remains disagreement over whether that should come from a direct government grant of the spectrum and funding for operation of the network, as Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) has proposed, or whether the spectrum should be auctioned to a commercial entity who can build it out and share it with first responders, as the FCC has proposed.

But legislators and FCC commisioners (touching on the topic in another hearing Wednesday) agree that the the most important thing is to finally get the network built, as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches. "Far too often we talk about important role these brave first responders play but fail to give them the tools they need to do their job. I think it is long past time to do something about that," said Rockefeller.

Among those with reservations about bypassing the auction and simply allocating the spectrum to emergency communications is Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). "I have some serious concerns about the true cost of building a new network, particularly given that some are advocating for a stand-alone network, which dramatically increases the costs," he said. He also said he thought the FCC should proceed with a proposed rulemaking on auctioning that so-called D block (spectrum recovered from broadcasters in the switch to digital) for an emergency network, so that if Congress cannot agree on whether to allocate or auction within a year, the FCC can and should auction it.

The FCChas tried before to auction that spectrum to a private company that would build out the network and share it with first responders, but the minimum bid was not met, some argue because the FCC put too many conditions on it.

While the Rockefeller hearing had to duel for attention with the more high-profile net neutrality House hearing featuring the five FCC commissioners, the interoperable network got a cross-promotional plug in that hearing as well.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) who is resigning her seat, asked the FCC commissioners to give her the parting gift of that interoperable network, plus a bill she backed in the last Congress she said would create a competitive marketplace for the emergency communications devices.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowksi said he would back whatever legislation reached the ultimate goal of getting that network built, while Commissioner Michael Copps, who has been pushing along with Harman for the network, renewed his call for action.