The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee vowed Wednesday to pass legislation that would allocate a controversial chunk of spectrum known as the D-block to public-safety officials for an interoperable broadband network before the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
At a hearing on how to build such a network, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said legislation he introduced last month is the committee's top priority. His bill would reallocate the D-block to the public-safety officials instead of auctioning it off, as is required by current law. To help pay for the network, the bill would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to conduct incentive auctions aimed at persuading broadcasters to give up some of their spectrum in exchange for some of the proceeds from the auction of those airwaves.
"This is my highest legislative priority for this committee," Rockefeller said. "We'll work to get it done before we reach the 10th anniversary" of the September 11 attacks. Those attacks highlighted several communications problems facing first responders, and the commission that investigated the attacks called for the creation of a national interoperable network.
While most lawmakers agree on the need for such a network, debate remains over how to get it done. Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and other members voiced concern about the funding that would be needed to pay for the network. She also called for adding to Rockefeller's measure other wireless proposals included in a broader spectrum bill she is expected to offer in the coming weeks.
Hutchison's draft measure, a summary of which was obtained by National Journal, would require the FCC to auction 90 megahertz of government spectrum within two years to meet the growing demand for mobile broadband, as well as an additional 100 megahertz of spectrum identified by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration or the president. It also authorizes incentive auctions but would require the FCC to take certain steps to protect broadcasters and ensure such auctions are "truly voluntary."
The draft also would allocate $20 billion in federal funds for building a public-safety network, a small portion of which would come from grants to help pay for deployment in rural and high-cost areas, while additional funding would come in the form of interest-free loans. It calls for other measures aimed at promoting more efficient use of spectrum.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., also was concerned about the cost of the network and pressed public-safety officials at the hearing about whether they are open to some public-private partnerships, as well as eventually giving up some narrow-band spectrum they may not need anymore.
But when Rockefeller asked about a proposal included in the FCC's national broadband plan that would allow public-safety officials priority access to ride on commercial networks during emergencies, the state and local officials -- who included New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) -- said that proposal is not workable.
"Going to someone and asking permission to get on their network in a time of emergency is just not feasible," said North Las Vegas Fire Chief Al Gillespie, who testified for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
House Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., also supported reallocating the D-block. He has introduced his own bill to do so and would raise revenues to help pay for it by auctioning off some government-controlled spectrum. However, his bill has been referred to the Energy and Commerce Committee, where some of the panel's leaders have been skeptical of such proposals.
Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has said that giving the D-block to public-safety officials would leave a $3 billion hole in the federal budget.