Expressing concern about use of past federal investments of spectrum and money for public-safety communications, members of a key House subcommittee last week questioned whether proposals to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block would alleviate problems that exist today, reports Urgent Communications.
Multiple bills in the Senate and House call for the D Block to be reallocated to public safety. It’s currently slated to be auctioned to commercial operators.
Under current law an operator who buys D-Block spectrum would have to build LTE networks that provide first responders with mobile access as well as consumers (backgrounder pdf).
All members of the House Communications and Technology subcommittee acknowledged the need for interoperable broadband networks, but some raised doubts whether reallocating the D Block to public safety would fix the problem.
“We have provided public safety with nearly 100 MHz of spectrum for their exclusive use,” subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said during last week’s hearing (pdf). “Given that fact, it’s strange to me that the debate on public-safety communications has been so focused on the 700 MHz D Block.”
Among the issues the subcommittee was addressing (pdf):
- Why do we still not have voice interoperability for public safety?
- How have the $13 billion and 100 MHz been used? What worked, what didn’t, and why?
- How can public safety make the most of the approximately 80 MHz of spectrum it has outside the 700 MHz band?
- Is the 10 MHz that public safety plans to use for broadband out of the 24 MHz cleared by the DTV legislation enough to meet public safety’s broadband needs in the short term?
- How soon could public safety migrate from narrowband to broadband on the rest of the 24 MHz and how soon will public-safety grade VoIP service be available?
- How long will it take to build the broadband network?
- How much will construction of the broadband network cost? How much will operation and maintenance cost?
- Who should hold the spectrum licenses and operate the network: public safety, a not-for-profit corporation, local government, the federal government, or commercial entities?
- Should excess capacity be leased for commercial purposes?
- Should the revenue go into funding the network or back to the U.S. Treasury?
- Why have public safety radios lagged behind commercial devices?
- How can public safety reap the benefits of the commercial sector?
Fire Chief Jeff Johnson, chief executive of the Western Fire Chiefs Association and immediate past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, represented the Public Safety Alliance on the panel (pdf). He said the issue has been the “thin slices of spectrum” public safety has received over 50 years.
“That is why, today, we have over 55,000 public safety agencies each operating [their] own mission-critical radio system over six or more different radio bands.” He noted that the current spectrum allocation for public safety cited by lawmakers is somewhat misleading, because 50 of the 96 MHz for first responders is in the 4.9 GHz band, which lacks the propagation characteristics to be used for affordable wide-area broadband networks.
Some members of the committee expressed support for Senate legislation introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) that would reallocate the D Block to public safety and would authorize the FCC to conduct incentive auctions, the proceeds of which would be used to pay for the public-safety LTE networks being deployed.
Walden noted that public safety recently received 24 MHz of 700 MHz airwaves, which have been “woefully underutilized,” as half the airwaves are being used to support narrowband LMR networks. Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) cited a report that indicates Congress has appropriated about $13 billion in funding for public safety during the past decade.
“If you’re not using the 24 MHz efficiently, why would we give you 10 more? It doesn’t make sense to me. If $13 billion hasn’t solved the problem, then what will,” asked Terry.
The Mobile Offender Recognition and Identification System (MORIS) is an iPhone app combining facial-recognition, iris biometrics and fingerprint-scanning technologies for police. It scans a high-resolution image of the iris and uses infrared illumination to reduce reflection. For the face, the app analyzes the unique distances and dimensions between a person’s facial features and can use an attachable iPhone accessory to scan a suspect’s fingerprints.
Public safety advocates say the “D-Block” doesn’t have a guard band to isolate the dedicated public safety broadband block, and it merges better with their 700 MHz broadband segment to create a wider channel. Public service users typically have more powerful handheld radios that connect to fewer towers. That makes melding commercial and public service users tricky. Motorola, which got out of the cellular equipment business and owns perhaps 80% of the public service radio business, likes the idea of more spectrum dedicated to public safety. They’ll likely supply most of the radios.
The FCC and some in Congress have expressed a strong believe that having commercial operators pay for and build mil-spec towers makes more sense. They say it would deliver more broadband to more places and to more people at less cost. Public safety would have priority access to all of if.
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