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Obama announces support for D-Block allocation to public safety

On the heels of double moves — one on each end of Pennsylvania avenue — D-Block allocation appears to now be within reach for public safety

Allocation of the D-Block of 700 MHz wireless broadband spectrum seems to be imminently upon us. As was reported in this space late last month (and previously here, and here, and here), the march toward allocation of the D-Block to public safety has been about as slow as molasses going uphill in wintertime. But now, it seems to have finally hit a double-time stride. That double-time stride comes on the heels of double moves — one on each end of Pennsylvania avenue — by President Barack Obama and Representatives Peter King and Bennie Thompson.

First, the President. What was merely hinted at in the State of the Union Address last month has now been clearly and succinctly articulated — the President of the United States has pledged his support for the allocation of the D-Block to public safety for the creation of a nationwide public safety mobile broadband network. During a speech at Northern Michigan University, in Marquette (Mich.), Obama officially threw his support behind an initiative that was originally called for by the 9/11 Commission more than seven years ago.

Almost at the same time that Obama was stumping for the cause of D-Block allocation to public safety, Representative Peter King of New York — who serves as House Homeland Security Chairman — reintroduced a bill to devote that very same (and very valuable) swath of 700MHz wireless broadband spectrum to public safety agencies for the purpose of building a nationwide, interoperable mobile broadband network. Representative King was joined by Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi in the introduction of the Broadband for First Responder's Act of 2011 (H.R. 607).   

Getting on the Same Page
As was previously reported here, the Administration’s plan — known as the Wireless Innovation and Infrastructure Initiative — appears to be based largely on the legislation recently reintroduced by Senator John D. Rockefeller. The Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act, which Rockefeller originally introduced last year, would allocate the D-Block in the 700 MHz band of spectrum to public safety and also provide some eleven billion dollars for the construction, maintenance, and operation of the network.  This is also pretty much — although not exactly — the essence of the bill introduced Thursday by Representative King.

The president’s plan calls for the development and deployment of a nationwide wireless broadband network to afford public safety agencies with far greater levels of effectiveness and interoperability. According to a White House Statement, “The 9/11 Commission noted that our homeland security is vulnerable, in part, due to the lack of interoperable wireless communication among first responders. The rollout of 4G high speed wireless services provides a unique opportunity to deploy such a system in conjunction with the commercial infrastructure already being developed and deployed.”

Naturally, the dollar numbers do not line up exactly. The Obama initiative calls for seven billion dollars to support the buildout of the public-safety broadband network, and another $500 million from something called the Wireless Innovations (WIN) fund, while Rockefeller and King come in at closer to eleven billion dollars. But in DC, such a chasm not exactly uncommon at this stage of the game (besides, what’s a few billion between friends?). 

King said in a statement after Obama’s speech in Michigan, “Allocation of the D-Block to public safety will ensure that our nation’s first responders have sufficient spectrum to develop a wireless broadband network. Public safety officials must have access to new technologies to perform increasingly complex duties. These technologies must have adequate and dedicated spectrum that is managed and controlled by public safety to ensure that the technologies will be more secure and reliable than those in commercial systems.”

Law Enforcement Gets Aboard
Late in the day on Friday I connected with one of my great resources in understanding this stuff. Chuck Dowd is Deputy Chief of Police for New York Police Department (NYPD), and for many years has been at the forefront in the fight to bring the D-Block to public safety.

“We’re pleased to have Obama Administration supporting our efforts,” Dowd told me, “and we’re equally pleased at the bipartisan support we’re getting from Congress, led by Senator Rockefeller and Representative King. With these recent events, we’re moving closer to being able to provide law enforcement and other public safety agencies with the full 20 megahertz of spectrum that is necessary to support a national, interoperable, wireless broadband network.”

Dowd told me also that his boss — New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly — will be testifying in Washington mid-next week. With high-profile names like Kelly making the rounds on Capitol Hill, D-Block allocation to public safety begins more and more to look like a fait accompli.

The National Sheriffs’ Association — one of the largest associations of law enforcement professionals in the United States, representing more than 3,000 elected sheriffs across the nation with a total membership of more than 20,000 — issued a statement shortly after Obama’s Michigan speech on Thursday afternoon. In it, Story County (Iowa) Sheriff Paul H. Fitzgerald — First Vice President of the National Sheriffs’ Association and NSA’s representative on the Public Safety Alliance — was effusive in his praise of the news.

“The National Sheriffs’ Association applauds President Obama for his strong support of our nation’s first responders,” read the statement, “and we are extraordinarily grateful to the President and his Administration for recognizing the significant need to allocate the D-Block to public safety for the creation and implementation of this critical public safety network.”

At mid-day on Friday, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) followed National Sheriffs’ Association in its applause of President Obama for announcing his strong support for building a nationwide, interoperable wireless network for public safety.

“Having greater interoperability is absolutely essential to public safety,” said Mark Marshall, who is not only IACP President and Chief of the Smithfield (Va.) Police Department, but also an occasional PoliceOne Contributor. “We applaud the president for his commitment to public safety and to ensuring that law enforcement and other first responders have the communications tools they need. We are also grateful to the vice president for his hard work on this issue and continued commitment to the needs of the law enforcement community.”

Sheriff Fitzgerald continued, “In times of emergency, it is essential that public safety have dedicated spectrum which is available on a nationwide basis to provide interoperable communications for all of our first responders not only during major emergencies but also on a day-to-day basis. The nation’s sheriffs now call upon both Chambers of Congress to swiftly pass existing legislation to allocate the D Block to public safety and provide the funding necessary to build this network.”

Speaking on the matter of H.R. 607, IACP President Marshall added, “The IACP fully supports this legislation by Representatives King and Thompson. We urge other members of Congress to sign on as co-sponsors of the legislation and support our efforts to have the 700 MHz D-Block spectrum allocated to the nationwide Public Safety Broadband License.”

Period of Public Comment
Rember, a significant piece of the puzzle was a move (on the same day of the State of the Union last month) by the FCC itself back in January when the FCC released its Third Report and Order and Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to advance the build-out of “robust, dedicated and secure mobile broadband networks for public safety.”

The Order and FNPRM requires all 700 MHz public safety mobile broadband networks to use Long Term Evolution as the common air interface to support roaming and interoperable communications.

It also seeks comment on many of the technical aspects of a public safety broadband network. These include:

• The architectural vision of the network
• Network robustness, resilience, and security
• Roaming and priority access among public safety broadband networks

Your Senators & Representatives
In its statement, the IACP urged Congress and the Administration to act quickly on this critical public safety effort. “Law enforcement and public safety must have a minimum of 20MHz of broadband spectrum to meet current and future needs and must have access to new technologies to perform increasingly complex duties. These technologies must have adequate and dedicated spectrum that is managed and controlled by public safety to ensure that they will be more secure and reliable than commercial systems. The D-Block allocation is essential if we are to meet the critical needs of our nation's law enforcement and public safety community,” the statement read.

Assuming that the White House, Senate, and House plans coalesce as it presently appears they will, the 20MHz-wide, national, interoperable, wireless broadband network it produces would provide police and (other public safety disciplines like fire and EMS) with one of the key tools that has been missing in their mission of protecting lives in communities throughout the United States.

This is your opportunity to make your feelings on the matter known to the powers that be in Washington. Do what you will, but you may not get too many more opportunities to so speak out, be heard, and have a personal influence on whether or not your communications gear can quickly download the building plans for the house you’re about to do a warrant entry on.

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