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A Fight Over First-Responder Bandwidth

W​hat began as an uncontroversial plan to use freed-up radio frequency spectrum for a national wireless broadband network for first responders has degenerated into a pitched policy battle in Washington. On one side are the country’s wireless industry and its regulators; on the other, first responders. And stuck in the middle is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The process began in advance of 2008’s national transfer to digital television, which consumes far less spectrum than its less efficient analog predecessor. Prior to the switch, the federal government allocated 24 MHz of freed-up spectrum for first responders to help address the persistent challenge of establishing voice interoperability between agencies and jurisdictions. The remaining vacated spectrum would be auctioned off in five blocks. One such block, designated Block D, carried a requirement that the buyer build infrastructure to support a national first-responder broadband network supporting voice and data within the band.

The Block D auction failed, however, because no one submitted an offer that met the required minimum bid of $1.3 billion; the highest bidder was willing to pay only $472 million. Observers blamed the weak economy, companies’ reluctance to take on a project of such scale singlehandedly and, of course, doubts about the project’s profitability.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started over. It now plans to hold a second Block D auction in 2011. The commission’s current conditions for the sale: the buyer would build out infrastructure for a 4G network using the next-generation broadband network protocol, called Long Term Evolution or LTE. The buyer would be permitted to use Block D for commercial as well as public-safety traffic. In emergencies, however, the service providers would be required to immediately prioritize first-responder data traffic within Block D, and if bandwidth there was fully consumed, such as in a 9-11-scale event, providers would also be required to bump traffic from other, purely commercial bands to satisfy responders’ needs.

But the nation’s first responders, led by a consortium of six top professional organizations, have come out in opposition to the plan; instead, they want the FCC to simply allocate Block D for the sector’s use outright, absent an auction. Public-safety agencies and jurisdictions would decide independently how they would use the spectrum and would contract out development of networks, with contracts stipulating adherence to national guidelines for network interoperability.

 “We cannot have commercial providers deciding what is or is not an emergency and what is the priority,” Chief Jeffrey D. Johnson, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, recently explained to members of the House Homeland Security Committee at a hearing examining the emergency bandwidth issue. “Public-safety transmissions have to go through at the moment, without delay. The lives of firefighters, the lives of medics, the lives of law enforcement officers depend on this,” he said.

James Barnett, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau told lawmakers that the process of prioritizing data within a network is simple with today’s technology. Selected “packets” of data are moved before others. But when U.S. Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA) challenged that assertion, Gregory Schaffer, assistant secretary of homeland security for the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications, acknowledged that specific prioritization technology like that Barnett described has not been developed.

Richardson then asked Schaffer whether DHS supports an auction or outright allocation. “At this point we believe that a decision on an auction needs to await some of the more technical answers being worked out,” Schaffer said.

The FCC argues that among the factors to consider in deciding the issue are cost and accessibility. Per the FCC’s analysis, construction and operation of a unified national Block D wireless network would cost $12.5 billion to $20 billion during its first decade. Construction through contracting by first responder agencies would cost an estimated $35 billion to $48 billion over the same period, Barnett said. He further warned that ad hoc network development would create a patchwork of broadband “haves” and “have nots” among agencies in wealthy and poor jurisdictions.

Conversely, first responders warn that independent development of Block D by private providers could duplicate a current-day obstacle to voice interoperability: proprietary networks that cannot communicate, even within the same frequency bands.

For its part, the White House has committed to the funding of the establishment of the first-responder network, while Schaffer told lawmakers that DHS is committed to brokering a compromise on the Block D debate. The public-safety community, meanwhile, enjoys a growing list of allies in Congress. Separate bills in the House and Senate call for the cancellation of the FCC auction and would require the allocation of the disputed spectrum directly to first responders.