W.H supports public safety network

Jan 28, 2011 Issues: First Responder Communications

By: Tony Romm
Politico
January 28, 2011

The White House is signaling support for a bipartisan plan to build a new nationwide communications system for firefighters and police officers, teeing up the next phase of an already tough political battle on Capitol Hill.

A White House official said Thursday the president supports turning over a chunk of cell phone airwaves best suited for penetrating building walls directly to first responders, who would then take the reins on creating the nation’s first interoperable public safety network. That commitment to the issue is likely to win plaudits from some Democrats and Republicans, but could still crash into political roadblocks as lawmakers quarrel over how best to fund it.

The administration’s proposal diverges greatly from the recommendations of its own Federal Communications Commission. The FCC had argued the so-called D-Block should be auctioned to a cell phone provider that could partner with public safety and fund the network’s construction.

That approach may have saved Washington some budget cash, but a White House official noted Thursday the “interests of public safety were best promoted” through the administration’s reallocation plan, with the help of “complimentary federal financial support and coordination of the network.”

But senior administration officials stressed to reporters Thursday the plan will not further saddle the budget with debt, even though the federal government has long figured into its calculations roughly $3.1 billion in revenue from the expected sale of the D-Block auction.

But the sale of other, unused airwaves to carriers like T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon and AT&T could close the gap, fund the network and perhaps bring down the deficit, the officials said. More details would be forthcoming and spelled out even further in the president's new budget, they added.

“This overall wireless initiative will not just improve access to wireless technologies and public safety, it will also reduce the budget deficit and increase the amount of wireless spectrum available for mobile broadband, unlicensed, and other uses,” the official added, noting details would come in the next few weeks.

Thursday’s news arrives a day after first responders learned from the vice president and other top cabinet members directly that the White House supported reallocation of the airwaves slated for auction. Obama himself alluded to the plan in his State of the Union address Tuesday, when he called for a wireless broadband push that would allow “a firefighter … [to] download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device.”

Public safety officials have long pushed for that network too in the aftermath of September 11, Hurricane Katrina and other national emergencies, stressing that the current patchwork of communications channels has made it too difficult to coordinate and too expensive to purchase new devices.
But the debate has stalled on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have for months remains unable to reach a consensus on how to handle the D-Block.

On one hand, auction of the D-Block to a company like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint, as the FCC proposed, could have lowered the price of a build out. At the same time, it would have allowed the companies to devote a lot of the new network to improving customers’ cell service — creating a network public safety personnel could tap in times of emergency. T-Mobile and Sprint supported that plan, thinking they were in the best position to win the auction.

But some groups of first responders balked at that idea, fearing any partnership with a private company. So did AT&T and Verizon, which supported the Public Safety Alliance and other efforts to derail an auction of the airwaves, as urged by their competitors.

The latter approach found the most resonance on the Hill last year, especially among Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and other top House and Senate leaders from both parties. Rockefeller recently reintroduced his bill from last session that mirrors much of the administration’s proposal only days earlier.

However, Republican leaders in the House have been far more skeptical of the administration’s efforts, citing the fact any decision not to auction the D-Block could result in a multi-billion-dollar budget hole.

“Clearly, if the decision is made to turn [the D-block] over to somebody without any kind of payment to taxpayers, you’ve got a budget hole,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), new chair of the House’s top tech committee, told POLITICO this week. He stressed public safety’s needs would remain supreme throughout the debate, but that more exploration was needed to determine whether this is a “spectrum issue” or a “devices” problem.

The White House’s position is new to the debate, as the administration previously had not signaled its ideas on how the network should be built. But there were signs Thursday it was likely to be greeted with bipartisan approval from other top lawmakers, including Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), who introduced a reallocation bill last year.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) also praised the White House on Thursday for what he described as "a crucial development in our efforts to ensure the development of a national interoperable public safety wireless broadband network." King, who introduced a bill in 2010 that also called for reallocation, later promised to work with congressional lawmakers and administration officials to pass a bill blocking auction this year.

That support is critical, as current law without a congressional edit would see the D-Block auctioned anyway.

“It’s something we’d really like to see pass this year,” a senior administration official said Thursday.