Public safety officials seek additional spectrum for first responders

Groups will urge lawmakers to require FCC to turn over the 700 megahertz D block cellular spectrum.

Top public safety officials plan to ask Congress to enact legislation directing the Federal Communications Commission to allocate a slice of cellular communications spectrum to first responders and halt auctions to commercial carriers. The push comes seven years after the 9/11 commission recommended in its report that local public safety agencies be assigned new spectrum quickly.

In what it described as an "unparalled event," the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International said it will hold a briefing at the National Press Club on Tuesday with leading police and fire officials to urge Congress to immediately reallocate the 700 megahertz D block cellular spectrum for public safety use.

"This is the last opportunity we have to get this spectrum," said Charles Dowd, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department. Securing it would allow safety officials to transmit video from a fire scene and track firefighters electronically.

The broadband network also could support automated license plate recognition and biometric technologies, including mobile fingerprint and iris identification, according to APCO.

FCC failed to attract a bidder for block D during a February 2008 cellular auction, and unless Congress acts now, the commission must put the block up for auction again, said Dowd, who commands the New York City Police Department's communications division.

During the 2008 auction, FCC envisioned a commercial entity building a public safety network both for first responders and commercial users. But Dowd said that approach would require first responders to wait in line for access to the network, which he viewed as unacceptable. "In an emergency, you can't wait 30 seconds for a call to go through," Dowd said.

Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, estimated during a September 2009 hearing that it would cost between $10 billion and $40 billion to build a national first responder network.

Dowd's estimate fell on the lower side of that range; he said a national public safety broadband wireless network could be built for $6 billion to $10 billion. Some costs could be recouped by allowing utility and other companies to use the public safety network on a secondary basis, he added.

APCO will ask Congress and FCC to work with public safety officials to identify funding sources to build and maintain the nationwide wireless broadband network.

The network is critical to giving police, fire, medical and other public safety professionals modern and reliable communications capabilities, including high-speed data and video, and to ensuring local and federal officials can reach one another during emergencies, APCO said.

A national broadband network for first responders "will never be realized without a commitment by the federal government to allocate the 700 MHz D block to public safety now," the group stated. "Auctioning the D block is shortsighted as it precludes this possibility."

Public safety officials plan to meet on Tuesday with federal officials and lawmakers to make the case for the broadband network, according to Dowd. Officials on the list include Attorney General Eric Holder; Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; and staffers from the office of House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

In addition to APCO, the following organizations back allocating the 700 MHz D block spectrum to public safety:

--International Association of Chiefs of Police

--International Association of Fire Chiefs

--Major Cities Chiefs Association

--Major County Sheriffs' Association

--Metropolitan Fire Chiefs

--National Emergency Management Association

--National Emergency Number Association

-- National Sheriffs Association