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Senate Commerce Leaders Push for Commercial, First Responder Spectrum

The ranking members of the Senate Commerce Committee are urging the FCC to complete an inquiry into cell phone outages during last week's earthquake and calling their colleagues to pass S. 911, the bill that would free up more spectrum for commercial advanced wireless services and a first-responder national interoperable broadband network.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chair of the committee, and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said that the FCC should move "as quickly as possible" to finish its assessment of outages related to last week's 5.8 earthquake on the East Coast. Cell phone companies have said there were not outages, per se, and no infrastructure damage, but conceded congestion due to calling volumes. Later in the week, FEMA and other government agencies urged cell phone users to stay off their phones during Hurricane Irene.

The letter, which was sent before Irene made landfall, combined both the earthquake and impending storm to press for government action on both reclaiming spectrum and creating the emergency net.

"Americans should expect that they can reach their loved ones during an emergency," they wrote. "But our commercial networks are asked to do much more. Because first responders still do not have a nationwide wireless broadband network of their own, they must rely on these same commercial networks if they hope to access any mobile data services, such as text messaging and emails.

"Despite being six years from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and ten years from the tragic events of 9/11, we still do not have an interoperable wireless broadband network for public safety. We must not allow any more potentially life-threatening disasters to occur before our nation's first responders get the interoperable public safety communications system they need to keep us safe."

They put in a pitch for commercial spectrum as well. "The congestion following Tuesday's earthquake clearly demonstrates the need for more commercial spectrum," they said, "Indeed, network problems like we saw this week may become even more frequent if the government does not act quickly to make more spectrum available for advanced wireless services."

Rockefeller's S. 911 bill gives spectrum to first responders for a network, paid for by some of the proceeds from auctioning broadcast spectrum for advanced wireless.