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APCO 2011: The latest on D-block allocation

With just a few legislative days remaining before the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, will legislation on D-Block allocation pass before that milestone?

The D-Block is presently the most pressing matter in Congress related to public safety. That’s not my opinion — that’s a fact. The pressure now placed on our Senators and Representatives to address the issue of allocating the D-block to public safety, establishing the necessary governance related to the D-Block, and providing the funding needed to build out a public safety wireless broadband network on the D-Block, has never been higher than it is right now. Could that pressure get higher? You bet, and I’ll get into that in a wee bit.

For now, let’s quickly review the legislative landscape today, and where we may go in coming weeks. It just so happens that this was one of the topics discussed during an afternoon session today at the 77th Annual APCO Conference in Philadelphia, where three of the ‘staffers’ most deeply involved in the grinding and packaging of this particular legislative sausage spoke to a room full of public safety communications professionals.

The well-attended session — moderated by Sean Kirkendall from the Public Safety Alliance — featured Jeff Cohen, who serves as Counsel to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce; John Branscome, Communications Counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology; and Ed Parkinson, Professional Staff Member for the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security.

A Little History
“Congress mandated the FCC auction of the D-Block spectrum within the 700MHz band in 2007,” began Kirkendall, “and an auction was scheduled in 2008 by the FCC based on a public-private partnership. Many believe that it failed because of the public safety requirements — that commercial industry did not believe there was a business case, or at that time could not establish a business case to meet that requirement. So, FCC had an outstanding requirement to auction the D-Block. Public safety came together after 2008 — through a consensus group which has become the Public Safety Alliance — and they did not walk away from a public private partnership.”

The Public Safety Alliance — an organization headed by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and consisting of members of the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Emergency Management Association, and dozens of others — has been steadfast in its effort to make D-Block allocation a reality.

Kirkendall rightly explained that the PSA looked for a way forward to continue to do a public-private partnership, despite the fact that such a concept fell totally flat in FCC Auction 73. What PSA’s leadership did differently was to take the position that “the best way to do that was to allocate the D-Block to public safety,” said Kirkendall.

A Lot of Hard Work
Last year, Senator Jay Rockefeller, who serves as Senate Commerce Committee Chairman, introduced a bill that would allocate the D-Block to public safety and provide adequate funding to make that a nationwide mobile broadband public safety network. Rockefeller reintroduced that bill early this year, and it has been strongly supported by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, ranking Republican member of the Commerce Committee. That landmark piece of legislation — dubbed S.911: Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2011 — received an overwhelming majority (21-4) of Republican and Democrat members of the committee, with the aim of a vote in the full Senate that would enable it to be signed it into law by the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.

Cohen said during today’s session that on the Democratic side of the aisle in the House of Representatives, Congressman Henry Waxman — who Cohen works for— has advocated for the need for a public safety broadband network, and has been working toward a bi-partisan approach to have legislation completed and on the President’s desk before that solemn milestone a little more than one month from today. At least two ‘discussion drafts’ are now being circulated in the House — there is, as one might expect, a Republican version and a Democratic version — but Cohen said that both sides are working toward an agreeable solution.

“We have differences of opinion about the D-Block,” Cohen said. “Our draft would reallocate it to public safety like the Senate S.911 bill would do, but we are having good faith and productive negotiations with the Republican staff. We have a very good relationship with them.”

Branscome then said, “This [S.9.11] is a true bi-partisan bill. Senator Rockefeller and Senator Hutchison have worked together every step of the way on this bill, and they’re both equally committed. The goal has always been to get this bill on the President’s desk and signed by the 10-year anniversary of 9/11... Senator Rockefeller and Senator Hutchison are going to use every opportunity and every avenue to push this forward in the Senate, but it is a tough time to do anything in the Senate,” said Branscome.

“We’ve all worked very hard behind the scenes,” said Parkinson, who works with Congressman Peter King of New York on the House Committee on Homeland Security. “It’s truly been a bi-partisan effort to get this done... From the get go, HR 607 was a bi-partisan bill in the House. Currently as things stand we have 45 members signed on to HR 607. The Chairman has expressed a willingness to work with any and all — we want to see reallocation of the D-Block, to provide funding, and to provide the sensible and strong governance. Ideally by the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but there are only four or five days of session left before the 10th anniversary starts.”

Therein, lies the rub.

Our Senators and Representatives — not their staffers like the abovementioned troika who continue to work tirelessly into the small hours of the morning every day on Capitol Hill — are currently on ‘recess.’ There are not a lot of hours left when the floors of the House and Senate are actually open for business between today and September 11, 2011. The estimate repeatedly mentioned this afternoon was only a handful of available ‘work’ days between the close of the August recess and the anniversary of 9/11.

The Downside Has Upside
Deadlines are a great motivator. Writers — like yours truly — simultaneously love and hate deadlines. Deadlines drive us scribes, and they also drive us crazy. As I complete this column, I’m cloistered away in my hotel room, 14 stories above Broad Street following a 14-hour day. There’s nothing I want more than a sandwich from Tony Luke's down on East Oregon Avenue, but tomorrow’s deadline defeats all other agenda items, delicious cheesesteaks included.

Well, apply that understanding of urgent deadlines to what’s happening with the D-Block in DC. Recall that the bi-partisan co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission were clear in their recommendation that a nationwide public safety broadband network be created. That is the ONLY ONE of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations that remains undone.

It bears repeating: That’s the only recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that has not yet been completed. Wow. And here we are, four short weeks from the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks that allegedly “changed everything.”

I said at the top of this column that pressure to get something done on D-Block allocation is now at its highest level ever for our Senators and Representatives. I said also that the pressure on them could be higher. Well, here’s where you come into the picture.

“There are only a few days left in session before this 10-year anniversary,” Branscome said toward the end of today’s panel discussion.

“Senator Rockefeller and Senator Hutchison are going to continue to fight, but I think it’s also important that you all do the same. It would change the debate in Washington. Right now, during August, is when all the members of Congress are back in their districts and in their states. The one thing you can do is to find out when their town hall meetings are, show up, and talk about this issue. It’s much more effective — it’s better to talk to those members of congress when they’re at home, than in the cacophony and chaos that is Washington DC. You’ll be much more effective in making the point that this nationwide wireless broadband network impacts their districts, their states, and all of you in public safety,” Branscome said.

By continuously and consistently spreading the word on this stuff, I’ve done what little I can to do to help move us forward. Now it’s your turn. I’ve ended a slew of my columns on this issue with a call to action, and I’m doing it again. We have the opportunity to influence the ability for our first responders to be supported with a wireless broadband network that would save countless lives. I plan to contact my elected officials, and I hope you do the same. Enough said on that, but I have one final word...

One Final Word...
A friend of mine — who spoke to me this morning on the APCO Expo floor not ‘on the record’ but as a friend, so I won’t quote him by name — made an excellent point about the symbolism of the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 as it relates to the D-Block issue. Should Congress remain in a legislative quagmire and not address this matter before we gather in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in Shanksville for our solemn remembrances, we in public safety will not be weaker.

No. In fact, we will be stronger. Although it’s hard to imagine our elected officials looking any worse than they do in the wake of the Debt Ceiling debate/debacle, they will look considerably worse if 10+ years have passed and still nothing has been done to fix the public safety communications problems that we saw on that fateful day.

Then, perhaps, we will have the leverage we need to finally effect much needed — and long overdue — change.

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