The D-Block, public safety, and a tipping point

Have we finally reached a meaningful moment in the movement toward reallocation of the 700 MHz D-Block to public safety?

In recent weeks there has been increasing chatter on the concept of allocating to public safety the 10 MHz D-Block of 700 MHz spectrum, a topic covered in this space on numerous occasions. As has been previously reported, the FCC doesn’t have the authority to simply reallocate the D-Block to public safety — that would take an act of Congress — and the FCC has continued to move forward with its original mandate to auction off that swath of spectrum despite the miserable failure the first such auction proved to be. Well, an act of Congress — specifically the First Responders Protection Act of 2010 (S. 3625) — may be exactly what the FCC might soon get.

Why D-Block Allocation Matters
Before we go any further with what’s new in the D-Block debate, let’s pause for a three-point reminder about why D-Block allocation matters (or should matter) to law enforcers now more than ever.

1. Safety: Commercial networks now used by public safety agencies cannot fulfill mission-critical police, fire, and EMS operations needed during a large-scale emergency — they’re simply not built to public safety standards of uptime, availability, and redundancy. These systems are not particularly fragile in normal circumstances, but we know that in a major catastrophe, everyone (and their cousin) will be trying to use the carrier network to contact friends and relatives to “see if they’re okay.” So, during a major emergency, when they would be most needed, the existing broadband communications systems would simply fail, putting first responders’ lives at risk. Needless to say, this totally unacceptable.
2. Efficiency: The fact of the matter is that public safety needs a full 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum to build a robust nationwide broadband network capable of carrying data, video, and eventually one day, voice transmissions. The 10 MHz D-Block is immediately next door to the existing 10 MHz of 700 MHz already occupied by public safety, and simply extending the build to the D-Block would completely eliminate a host of technical issues (radio interference is just one problem you’d get from building on two distinctly separate 10 MHz bands as opposed to a single 20 MHz swath) and significantly reduce cost and complexity of building the network.
3. Timing: Senator Jay Rockefeller (D – W.V.) recently introduced the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2010 (S. 3756), which builds on several proposed pieces of legislation already gaining momentum in Congress including the First Responders Protection Act of 2010 (S. 3625) and Broadband for First Responders Act of 2010 (H.R. 5081). Rockefeller’s bill would, among other things, allocate the D-Block to public safety, establish a means by which technical standards would be developed, and perhaps most importantly, fund the construction and maintenance of the nationwide interoperable wireless broadband public safety network.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (right), greets FBI Director Robert Mueller on Capitol Hill prior to the start of a 2007 hearing on national threats. (AP Photo)
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (right), greets FBI Director Robert Mueller on Capitol Hill prior to the start of a 2007 hearing on national threats. (AP Photo)

Admittedly, reasons two and three are a little esoteric, but that first reason alone should be enough for 99.99 percent of police officers to get behind this issue in one form or another. But just for good measure, here’s a fourth reason for your consideration:

4. Cold, Rational Logic: The major telecommunications companies voted a resounding “no thanks” the last time this segment of spectrum came up for auction in Spring 2008. To do the same thing over and over and expect a different result is Einstein’s definition of insanity. Let’s not be insane and instead do what must be done — work very hard in the next few weeks and months to press Congress to pass legislation that will allocate the D-Block to public safety and provide funding needed to build and maintain a nationwide broadband network for public safety (more later on precisely what you can do to help the cause).

Harlin McEwen is a former Deputy Assistant Director for the FBI and former Chief of Police for the Ithaca (N.Y.) Police Department. Today he serves as Chairman of the Communications & Technology Committee for the IACP and as Chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust as well as in numerous other roles affecting public safety communications issues.

McEwen stated it plainly in a recent phone conversation with me: “The reason this is important is that the only options [available to public safety] today are using commercial services — most of the places that are getting broadband service are using one of the big four commercial companies. On a daily basis it works pretty good. The problem is when push comes to shove and you have a major event. The point is that every day, [first responders] are happy because they’re getting what they need. But when things go sour, then they know that those services aren’t very reliable, and that’s the difference.”

So, What’s New in D-Block?
In addition to speaking with McEwen, I connected with two of the top police brass now leading the effort to secure that spectrum for first responders — Acting Assistant Chief Chris Moore of San Jose (Calif.) Police Department and Chuck Dowd, Deputy Chief of Police for New York Police Department (NYPD). All three men — Dowd, Moore, and McEwen — each individually and independently pointed to recent and near-term future activity in Congress as the possible inflection point for the cause of public safety in the D-Block.

That brings us back to Sen. Rockefeller and the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2010. Why is Rockefeller’s bill important? Well for starters, Rockefeller is Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee — the gate through which any legislation regarding the D-Block must eventually pass. The mere fact that he introduced this bill belies his support for the concept. On top of that, Rockefeller has been organizing a series of hearings (which have already begun) to gather information from the top experts in public safety and the wireless industry.

McEwen explained, “We were very happy with the legislation that Senators Lieberman and McCain introduced, which is bi-partisan, but really, Rockefeller’s bill — which is very similar — is probably the more practical one because he’s the guy who can make the committee move forward, have a hearing, and get that moving. I can’t think of anything much more encouraging than that.”

Chief Dowd added, “I think the Rockefeller bill is a comprehensive bill because it addresses both the needs of spectrum and of money, you know, which is everybody’s concern. So we like that, we’re excited about it. It’s very possible that Senator Rockefeller is going to schedule a hearing sometime in late September on this issue — on public safety broadband, on public safety communications. That, coupled with his proposed legislation, I’ve got to tell you, it has us very excited, very optimistic.”

Chief Moore pointed to the fact that simply having a discussion about a specific set of legislative proposals is an improvement over where this issue has languished since the D-Block debacle in 2008.

“If you think back to where we were eighteen months ago, twelve months ago, even six months ago,” Moore said, “we were literally trying to win the argument for the need for the D-Block. We pretty much made our case, in spite of some of the FCC’s protestations. We’re at a point now with the introduction of the Rockefeller bill, which again as you know proposes up to $11 billion in funding, which is tremendous. And it also addresses some other issues which are really necessary in respect to governance. So those of us in public safety really like the Rockefeller bill.”

In fact, just today (August 31, 2010), the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), a partnership of the nation’s leading public safety associations issued a press release indicating strong support for the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2010.

“Public safety officials, including sheriffs, police chiefs, fire chiefs, police officers, state troopers, emergency management professionals and emergency medical service providers across America,” read the announcement, “are united in their strong support for the allocation of the D-Block to public safety and the establishment of a funding program to construct and maintain a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network that will improve our nation’s homeland security and provide first responders with advanced voice and data communications technologies that are urgently needed.”

The Laws of Gravity
Finally — and perhaps most importantly — Rockefeller’s bill builds on legislation supported by Senators Joe Lieberman (I – Conn.) and John McCain (R – Ariz.) as well as Representatives Peter King (3rd Dist., N.Y.) and Yvette Clarke (11th Dist., N.Y.), and Henry Waxman (30th Dist., Calif.). Each of those pieces of legislation has dozens of co-sponsors and supporters.

“We’ve already had Lieberman and McCain come out in support of us,” Dowd explained. “We’re continuing to build support for the Peter King bill, which was just straight spectrum reallocation. I think there are 70 co-sponsors on that, so we’re doing well. I mean this thing is shifting towards public safety getting what it needs.”

When you start counting noses — and in D.C. it’s all about counting noses — in support of all those initiatives you begin to get to a significant number of people gathering around a legislative nexus point. Such a nexus point can, with some effort, start to have its own gravitational pull — one that extends two miles westward on Pennsylvania Avenue to the Oval Office.

“The White House is now starting to show support for this,” said McEwen, “which is something we hadn’t had before. They haven’t said so in any public announcement, but they have said that they’re supporting a funding mechanism, which is in the bill. So that’s very good.”

“The Administration,” Dowd added, “has taken a position where they want to study this and come to a decision on what should happen for public safety. So they’ve scheduled a series of forums, one of which [has already happened] and there’s going to be a follow up in September. And we believe there’s going to be a larger forum probably the week of September 20th. And this is, in our view, an effort from the administration to understand exactly what public safety needs. So we’re very optimistic about that.”

Moore stated, “We are going — the Public Safety Alliance is going — to be back up on the Hill on September 20th, 21st, and 22nd, when there’s going to be a national broadband forum that the White House requested. We’re also going to up on the Hill doing what we did in January — going up in uniform and having a press event. We’re hoping by that time that perhaps we might be able to get this thing through Congress, but we’ll see.”

McEwen concluded, “I’m hopeful that we will see something pass before the end of this session. But if that doesn’t happen, I’m very optimistic that something will happen early in the next Congress.”

Get Ready for Action
Nothing worthwhile comes without effort. Here’s where the individual public safety professional — every cop, firefighter, and EMT in America — is just as important to the success of D-Block allocation to public safety as a Dowd, a Moore, a McEwen.

First and foremost though, simply do what you can to learn about the issues at stake. Check out the resources available from places like the Public Safety Alliance. If after you’ve learned about what hangs in the balance you agree with Chiefs Dowd, Moore, and McEwen, then print out, sign, and mail to your Senator or Representative a letter in support of S. 3756.

Conversely, if you disagree, send a letter stating so.

Regardless, at the risk of lapsing into hyperbole, September 2010 may prove to offer the best chance to achieve the most significant and promising advances in the march toward a national public safety broadband network in many years. Frankly, maybe ever. It would be a terrible shame if we allowed such an opportunity to pass without at least giving it the attention it deserves.

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