The D-Block of 700 MHz spectrum will — unless something goes wildly and unexpectedly off the rails — finally be allocated to public safety. In a live webcast press conference held Thursday afternoon, four key Democratic Senators — Jay Rockefeller, Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Frank Lautenberg — invoked stories about police, fire, and EMS personnel killed on 9/11 as they announced an historic deal to give America’s first responders a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network.
The provisions are included in the conference report to the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (H.R. 3630), which the House and Senate were due to vote on on Friday or Saturday. According to a document released by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the public safety spectrum agreement:
1.) Allocates D-Block: The agreement provides public safety officials across the country with the same spectrum resource — a portion of the 700 MHz wireless airwaves known as the D-Block.
2.) Secures Funding: The agreement provides $7 billion in dedicated funding to get a nationwide, wireless, broadband network using the D-block spectrum up and running. This is accomplished through spectrum auction revenues — at no cost to taxpayers.
3.) Allows Public Safety Input: The agreement provides extensive opportunities for public safety input and leadership in the development, operation, and maintenance of the network.
4.) Ensures Governance: The agreement will create an independent First Responders Network Authority to manage the public safety network. The authority will be housed within NTIA, but will have separate leadership, including a board with public safety, commercial, federal, state and local expertise to oversee the D-Block license and development of the network.
A Huge Day
“This is sort of a huge day for America,” Rockefeller said as the event began. “Days like this don’t come around very often. This doesn’t cost the taxpayers a dime. It will save endless numbers of lives of first responders. With this new high-tech capability...cops will have access to criminal histories before they approach a suspect all on handheld devices which will be available at every level all across the country in one, integrated, truly national first responders communications system,” Rockefeller said.
As of 2330 hours last night, landmark new legislation is imminent that will allocate the D-Block — that 10 MHz of spectrum immediately adjacent to that which is already licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — to first responders across America. The resulting Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN) will reside in the full 20 MHz of broadband spectrum necessary to meet current and future needs.
Allocation, Funding, and Governance
As had been rumored for several hours, the legislation contains not only the necessary language for the allocation of the D-Block to public safety, but the all-important funding required to build such a network. According to documentation released in conjunction with the webcast press conference, the agreement includes $7 billion in dedicated funding to get a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network up and running on the portion of the 700 MHz wireless airwaves known as the D-Block. Furthermore, the bill provides up to $300 million for critical research and development into next-generation public safety communications technology.
An equally-important element to the D-Block agreement announced today is that it provides extensive opportunities for public safety input and leadership in the development, operation, and maintenance of the network.
Finally, it creates an independent First Responder Network Authority, which will be housed under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), to develop the public safety network. The authority will be housed within NTIA, but will have separate leadership, including a board with public safety, commercial, federal, state and local expertise to oversee the D-Block license and development of the network.
The Devil and the Details
As we all know, in anything this complicated a variety of important details can be misunderstood. One such detail which is of particular interest — and significant consequence — is related to the matter of vacating certain 700 MHz spectrum already being used by public safety.
While two of my sources tell me this all comes without public safety having to forfeit existing 700 MHz narrowband spectrum, another source indicates that “in approximately 11 years, public safety organizations will be required to give back spectrum currently in use in the T-Band. The agreement includes provisions to pay for their relocation to the 700 MHz band.”
In an attempt to get as clear a picture of this as possible, a colleague and I have actually dug into a document issued by the U.S. House of Representatives entitled ‘Section-by-Section for The Middle Class Tax Relief & Job Creation Act of 2011 – H.R. 3630.”
According to that document, Section 4102 of the legislation:
1.) Reallocates the 700 MHz D Block from commercial to public safety use.
2.) Requires public safety to return the 700 MHz narrowband and guard band spectrum five years after standards have been set for the carriage of public safety voice communications over broadband networks.
3.) Provides public safety with up to $1 billion in grants from 18 auction proceeds to transition end users to broadband voice. In combination, these provisions give public safety officials the contiguous, 20 MHz of spectrum they say they need for wireless broadband while providing for auction of the 700 MHz narrowband spectrum.
“This will help meet the ongoing demand for commercial wireless broadband services while providing funding to help migrate public safety officials from narrowband voice services to broadband once public-safety-grade voice over Internet protocol is available,” the document explains.
Two Hurdles Remain
The D-Block allocation legislation is in “wet, but drying ink” Rockefeller said during the press event held this afternoon. “Details aren’t all as clear as they should be, but it’s all done.”
Well, there’s done, and then there’s done, and there still is just a little bit of space between the former and the latter.
While this legislation is reportedly set to be taken to a full vote before lawmakers on Capitol Hill begin a scheduled break in coming days, it should be noted that the D-Block issue is directly tied to the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (H.R. 3630), a bill that will extend the payroll-tax cut and unemployment benefits — legislation for which there is a looming deadline and not just a little bit of partisan debate. Consequently, two things still stand in the way of an all-out celebration by the public safety professions who have been working diligently toward this objective for more than a decade.
One — the President’s signature — is all but a foregone conclusion. Obama has been advocating for this issue to be resolved in favor of our police, fire, and EMS professionals for well over a year, and Vice President Biden has been leading the White House charge on the issue for years prior to that. Rockefeller said he expects the President to sign it given the chance, and I think that’s a very, very safe bet.
So, while it’s safe to say that if the bill clears Capitol Hill it will be signed (with much fanfare) up the street at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we still have to keep our eyes on those in the big white building two miles east of the Executive Mansion.
The D-Block allocation agreement comes in the form of what’s called a Conference Bill — finalized legislation which has been approved by both the House and Senate branches of the Legislature. Because there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to counting noses in Washington D.C., questions have immediately been raised about whether or not the agreed-upon legislation is actually expected to reach the president’s desk.
“Look, this conference report will not pass unless we get some Republican votes,” admitted Schumer during the press event. “We need 60 and we have 53, but it is hard to believe that our Senate Republican friends will let this bill die. Their House colleagues, of course, have signed the conference report. So many middle-class people, of course, depend on this bill — so many people who are out of work and out of luck depend on this bill. Millions and millions of Medicare patients depend on this bill, so I can’t imagine that our Republican Senate colleagues will let this die.”
All Signs Point to ‘Yes’
“When you put seven billion dollars into a buildout on something of this nature, the public — if not the whole country instantly — absolutely understands what’s going on. The point was to start it to the extent that you couldn’t stop it, and we did that,” Rockefeller concluded.
There have been a variety of very strong pieces of the puzzle put into place this time around which give this attempt at D-Block allocation a much greater chance of success than any other iteration we’ve previously seen.
For starters, the agreement leverages existing commercial wireless networks to promote cost-effective deployment of the network. It also ensures efficiency from a national model which is translatable to state and/or regional deployment and control. “To the extent that states do not want to participate in a national system, and believe they can develop their own interoperable systems, this model permits state efforts to develop radio access networks that use the national evolved packet core,” explains a data sheet provided to me by one of my Capitol Hill contacts.
Furthermore, this legislation directs the FCC to auction underutilized government spectrum to commercial wireless providers. It also provides the agency with voluntary incentive auction authority, which will promote efficient spectrum use. These auctions will raise billions of dollars — to help fund the public safety network and also lower the deficit. The FCC will be required to permit any interested entity to have the ability to bid in new spectrum auctions.
Finally, the agreement preserves the opportunity for nationwide unlicensed use of spectrum known as “white spaces,” while still maximizing the amount of spectrum that can be auctioned for commercial use. Unlicensed spectrum has been an engine of economic innovation and growth. Today, unlicensed uses include Wi-Fi connections for laptops, television remote controls, and cordless telephones. In the future, unlicensed spectrum is expected to enable new forms of communication, like ‘Super Wi-Fi.’
Finally, a Path Forward
“This is bill is a game-changer for public safety,” said my friend Chuck Dowd, Deputy Chief of NYPD, who has been working on this issue for many years. “It will revolutionize our communications abilities. Those of us who fought this battle in Washington owe a debt of gratitude to all in public safety nationwide that rallied around our effort. Law enforcement will eventually be able to share information reliably nationwide in ways never experienced before.”
A written statement issued by the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) — which represents nine of the major national public safety associations — lauded the “bicameral, bipartisan leadership and support Congress” which has negotiated this legislation. PSA said further that the compromise bill announced today is “a clear blueprint for realizing comprehensive interoperability of our emergency communications nationwide, and secures the path forward for public safety communications for decades to come.”
“This legislation will modernize the emergency communications capabilities to better protect our citizens,” stated the PSA, “who are served by the more than two million first responders across the nation. Further by leveraging commercial technologies, Public Safety will be effective stewards of a scarce national asset, spectrum. This will result in future taxpayer savings at every level of government through more efficient use of spectrum. Most importantly, Congress and the Administration are making America safer as law enforcement, fire, emergency medical, emergency management and other public safety personnel finally obtain the communications tools they need to better protect our citizens and respond to emergencies each and every day.”
Regular readers of this space know that this is an issue I’ve been following for a long, long time. Creation of a nationwide 20 MHz PSBN is the last remaining meaningful recommendation of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission made in the wake of the tragic events of September 11th.
Senator Rockefeller said — and I happen to agree with him — that today’s agreement “is a fabulous thing for the American people.”
Add your thoughts on this issue in the comments area below. As always, stay safe out there my friends.