Late last week, a significant milestone toward achieving the objective of a nationwide public safety broadband network was reached when the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation voted to introduce new legislation that would make allocation of the D-Block to public safety a reality. That bill — dubbed S.911: Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2011 — received an overwhelming majority (21-4) of Republican and Democratic members of the committee, and is now moving forward toward a vote in the full Senate that would enable it to be signed it into law by September, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
This significant development follows considerable debate, compromise, and negotiation, in the committee itself, as well as many months of hard work by organizations such as Public Safety Alliance (PSA), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), and myriad others. Following the Commerce Committee vote, the Public Safety Alliance issued a brief statement on this significant move toward D-block allocation and federal funding necessary to realize a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network.
“On behalf of the more than two million first responders nationwide, the Public Safety Alliance congratulates Chairman Rockefeller, Ranking Member Hutchison and the vast majority of Committee Members for their support and hard work to in taking this ‘massive step’ toward greatly improving the public’s safety,” said PSA spokesman Deputy Chief Chuck Dowd in a written statement posted to the PSA website. Regular readers of this space will recall that Chuck Dowd is one of my go-to guys on these matters, and is Commander of the Communications Division of the City of New York Police Department.
The Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act was introduced by Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who serves as Commerce Committee Chairman, and strongly supported by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, Ranking Commerce Committee Member. According to some reports, Rockefeller has said he was inspired to introduce the legislation after learning that first responders on 9/11 had no way to communicate with each other that day. I don’t know enough about how Senate bills get numbered, so I have to assume it is no small coincidence that it’s been listed on the legislative body’s docket as S.911.
The fact of the matter is, nearly 10 years ago, police, firefighters, and EMS workers lost their lives because of inadequate public safety communications networks during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In March, the chairmen of the 9/11 Commission announced their support for the policy that would finally advance the allocation of the D-Block spectrum to public safety — a key 9/11 Commission Report recommendation, and one of the only recommendations that has not yet been acted upon.
The bill allows broadcasters and other spectrum licensees to voluntarily remit back unused portions of the airwaves. The freed up spectrum would be auctioned for commercial wireless broadband use in exchange for a portion of the proceeds through ‘incentive auctions.’ The costs to build the public safety network will be offset by the proceeds of incentive auctions, and the surplus revenue will go toward deficit reduction.
Here are some other key provisions of the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act:
• Allocate 10 megahertz of spectrum, known as the “D-Block,” to public safety
• Establish a framework for the deployment of a nationwide, interoperable, wireless broadband network for public safety
• Direct the FCC to establish standards that allow public safety officials, when not using the network, to lease capacity on a secondary, but pre-emptible basis to non-public safety entities.
• Provide the FCC with incentive auction authority, which allows existing spectrum licensees to voluntarily relinquish their airwaves in exchange for a portion of the proceeds of the commercial auction of their spectrum. This provides new incentives for efficient use of spectrum. In addition, the funds from these incentive auctions, in conjunction with funds from the auction of other specified spectrum bands, and funds earned from leasing the public safety network on a secondary basis, will be used to fund the construction and maintenance of the nationwide, interoperable, wireless broadband public safety network
• Direct the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct research into transformative wireless technologies
• Surplus revenue from spectrum auctions, estimated to be more than $10 billion, will be directed to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction
Aneesh Chopra, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer in the Obama administration's Office of Science and Technology Policy praised the advancement of S.911 toward Senate and House consideration. “The Senate legislation makes good on a promise our Nation made to first responders following 9/11 that they would have the tools they need to keep our families safe, including a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network; it strengthens our competitiveness through investments in wireless R&D so the next generation of mobile broadband is invented here; and equips the Federal government with tools to utilize spectrum more effectively,” said in a written statement.
“As Chairman Rockefeller said, this is a deeply and profoundly emotional step, and we truly appreciate that it was done with integrity, with substance, and passed by a wide margin on a bipartisan basis,” Dowd concluded in that written statement on the PSA website. “Most of the members of this committee demonstrated that they believe the safety of the American people is what’s most important in this debate, and we look forward to Senators Reid and McConnell taking this legislation to the Senate floor and moving the full Senate to quickly pass it and get it to the President’s desk for signature before the 10th Anniversary of 9/11. It is the least we can do to honor those who serve the American people every day and for the many men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice keeping our country safe.”
The bill still has to pass a vote in both the House and Senate before it can be signed into law by President Barack Obama.