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Will D-Block allocation have to wait until 2012?

With just about two weeks left in the year and only a handful of days left in Congress’ scheduled session, there is now just a glimmer of hope that our early-2011 optimism on D-Block allocation was well placed

As we began the year 2011, many of the public safety professionals — and their ardent advocates among politicians and private citizens — were becoming downright optimistic that “this would be the year” in which Congress would allocate D-Block spectrum to public safety and provide sufficient funding to realize a nationwide, interoperable Public Safety Broadband Network. This would be, after all, the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and creating such an interoperable communications system was the only remaining “to do” from the list of security improvements recommended by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.

We weren’t even a month into the New Year when President Obama made clear reference to the D-Block issue, and indicated his Administration’s strong support for the interests of public safety. Even in the days leading up to that Presidential State of the Union Address — which included magic words like “public safety” and “broadband” in close proximity — there had been rumblings that behind-the-scenes meetings were taking place on Capitol Hill and its environs (read: K Street) that led observers to conclude we might finally be on a path toward imminent allocation to public safety of the so-called D-Block of 700MHz wireless broadband spectrum.

“How could it not get done this year?” we had collectively asked. Even I — a man who notoriously awakens in the morning cynical and pessimistic, remaining in that state until returning to dreamland again that night — had a feeling that enough momentum had been obtained for this issue to be finally resolved in a way that supported police officers, firefighters, and EMTs. Well, with just about two weeks left in the year and only a handful of days left in Congress’ scheduled session, there is now just a glimmer of hope that our optimism was well placed.

With just about two weeks left in the year and only a handful of days left in Congress’ scheduled session, there is now just a glimmer of hope that our early-2011 optimism on D-Block allocation was well placed. (AP Photo)
With just about two weeks left in the year and only a handful of days left in Congress’ scheduled session, there is now just a glimmer of hope that our early-2011 optimism on D-Block allocation was well placed. (AP Photo)

Where Are We Now?
The issue of D-Block allocation (and funding) has been added onto at least two pieces of last-minute legislation which are to be voted upon before our elected officials return home to shake babies and kiss hands during the Christmas break. Speculation continues that it could be added to a variety of other bills, although as days dwindle that possibility becomes more and more remote.

Late last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) added to his proposed bill which would extend the payroll tax cut and also provide some $5 billion for the buildout of a nationwide LTE network for first responders. One week prior to that, Representative Greg Walden (R-Ore.) proposed similar legislation, with the potentially show-stopping stipulation that public safety return its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum to the FCC. Most of us who support D-Block allocation are not particularly pleased with the idea of that narrowband giveback being attached to such a vital piece of legislation.

“Make no mistake. Public safety continues to have serious concerns with some aspects of the legislation being proposed, especially with respect to the proposed giveback of critical existing narrowband spectrum, and a troubling governance model” stated my friend Harlin McEwen in a written statement following news of the Walden bill being voted upon by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology.

“However,” continued McEwen in that same document, “we are united like never before in our shared commitment to work constructively with all Members of Congress and their collective leadership in both Houses of Congress to finally advance a workable solution that meets both the political realities in Washington DC, and the mission-critical operational realities throughout the nation. This is a critical time for all of us in this process, and none of us can afford to accept any attempts to minimize or politicize the level of unity that our nation’s first responders, state and local officials, and other stakeholders have on these issues at this important time.”

Let us not forget that both of these recent legislative moves come in the wake of the much-publicized failure in late November of the “Super Committee” to resolve the National Debt problem — their final drafts had included language supportive of allocation to public safety of the D-Block as well as funding necessary to build out the LTE network.

Where Are We Going?
Earlier this month, my friends over at the Public Safety Alliance issued a pair of press releases indicating continued hopefulness that we will finally witness enactment of legislation to allocate that 10MHz of D-Block spectrum and provide up to $6.5 billion for construction of a 20MHz nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network for our nation’s first responders.

“Like all Americans, we recognize and appreciate our nation’s current fiscal and economic realities,” opined Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald, President of the National Sheriffs’ Association in one of those written statements. “That is why it is so important that Congress complete action on comprehensive spectrum legislation this year to spur the economy, create jobs, ensure competitiveness in the marketplace, and provide public safety and first responders with the mission-critical broadband capabilities desperately needed to efficiently and effectively protect, mitigate and respond to emergencies each and every day, everywhere in the country, whether in the most rural outposts or the most urban, congested settings.”

If a person were to read the tea leaves on both of the abovementioned recent legislative proposals, they would have to conclude that neither last-ditch effort stands much of a chance of passage — both of them also have language supporting the buildout of a controversial oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, a proposal steadfastly opposed by many Democrats which has been essentially stonewalled by the Obama Administration for a year or more.

Frankly, it’s my opinion that such a failure might not end up being such a bad thing. As much as passage before the year’s end is appealing, getting it done “right” is better than getting it done “right now.”

I’m reminded of the Contractor’s Credo: “We can build it inexpensively, build it well, and build it quickly... now choose two of those because you cannot have all three.”

Most of us who have followed this issue closely for a long time remain supportive of S.911, also known as the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2011. That bill had been introduced by Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who serves as Commerce Committee Chairman, and had been strongly supported by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, Ranking Commerce Committee Member. As you will recall, S.911 moved out of committee in June with an overwhelming majority (21-4) of Republican and Democratic members of the committee and appeared at the time to be on a fast track toward a full vote prior to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This, as we now know, was not to be. Regardless, S.911 remains a very viable bill for reintroduction in early 2012, and it has continued to have the support of a number of heavy-hitters on both sides of the aisle. 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

One Final Word...
Most of my sources indicate to me that if this Congressional session ends without passage of a bill allocating the D-Block to public safety, Senators Jay Rockefeller and Kay Bailey Hutchison will put S.911 back into the mix in 2012. Further, if past is prologue, we may see similar bills introduced by people such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Congressman Peter King (R-NY), and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA).

We must be cognizant of the fact that we’re entering an election year — in case you hadn’t heard — and that in addition to selecting the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we will choose one third of all Senators and the entire House of Representatives.

If the ability to communicate with other first responders in your area is at all important to you, please consider taking some manner of action which would let your elected officials know your opinion on the matter. You can bet I will.

Stay safe my friends.

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