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Quake Prompts Renewed Calls for Action on Spectrum Auction

First it was the upcoming tenth anniversary of 9/11 that lit a fire under spectrum auction legislation, creating a national, interoperable first responder broadband network, then it was the debt ceiling issue that almost pushed through the bill authorizing the government to incentivize broadcasters to get off their spectrum.

Now it is Tuesday's East Coast earthquake centered near Washington that has provided new leverage for backers of the legislation, which is expected to be teed up after Congress returns from a summer break after Labor Day.

Broadcasters don't oppose auctions, but are concerned there will be insufficient protections from signal interference and current coverage areas.

"[Tuesday's] earthquake is yet one more wake-up call that first responders need a unified, dedicated communications system that is interoperable and will work in times of emergency -- like today when cell phone coverage is over-utilized and over-whelmed," said Vince Morris, spokesman for Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), in a statement late Tuesday. "When Congress returns in September -- it's critical they immediately take up consideration of Sen. Rockefeller's spectrum bill because nothing's more important than the public's safety."

Rockefeller is the main sponsor and driving force behind a Senate bill that would give spectrum to first responders for the network and pay for its creation and maintenance with some of the proceeds from the spectrum auction.

That statement was followed soon after by one from the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, which, like Rockefeller, has been pushing for the network and allocating spectrum for public safety rather than auctioning it -- as current law requires -- to a private entity that would partner with first responders on the net.

"[Tuesday's] magnitude 5.9 earthquake in northern Virginia once again underscored the critical need for allocating the D Block spectrum and funding to public safety to build a nationwide interoperable broadband network," said APCO in a statement. "A more severe earthquake could have resulted in devastating loss of life and property in the heart of our Nation's Capital...What was immediately apparent to the hundreds of thousands of people who flooded the streets after the quake was that their cell phones and wireless data networks did not work because of severe congestion. Commercial wireless networks quickly became overloaded and people were not able to call, text or email their friends and family."

While the group conceded there were no reports of congestion on public safety radio systems, it said there was an impact on emergency workers trying to contact colleagues and families on commercial cell phones. "Clearly, public safety cannot rely on commercial networks during critical incidents and major events, as they cannot gain access to roam onto or gain the level of priority access necessary to be effective in such incidents," it said.

CTIA, the wireless industry's trade association, said that congestion was an issue during the quake's aftermath.