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FCC to seek $18B for emergency wireless communications network

The FCC will ask Congress to spend up to $18 billion over 10 years to build a nationwide, state-of-the-art wireless communications network for emergency responders after the agency failed to persuade the private sector to foot the bill.

The network would enable fire, rescue and police squads to share information across jurisdictions, such as video from disaster scenes, and would eventually include voice communications.

During a news conference Thursday, FCC officials said such a network is long overdue, more than eight years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and more than four years after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

"We have gone too long with too little progress to show for it," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said. "The private sector simply is not going to build what the country needs in terms of [a] public safety network."

The proposal will be part of the commission's upcoming national broadband plan, to be unveiled at the agency's March 16 public meeting, the day before the deadline for submission to Congress.

The commission estimates that $16 billion to $18 billion in federal dollars would be needed for the network's construction and operation, with more federal dollars required at the 10-year mark. Additional funding could come from local and state governments.

These costs apparently would be on top of the estimated $20 billion to $350 billion the FCC has said would be needed to pay for the plan's core goal: low-cost, nationwide access to broadband by 2020. The agency is hopeful that most of those investments would come from private sector.

Asked whether Congress might balk at the emergency network's hefty price tag, retired Rear Adm. James Barnett, FCC's chief of the public safety and homeland security bureau, said efforts are under way to communicate to lawmakers the importance of funding this project.

"We're not going to pull any punches and tell them that you can do this on a dime," he said.

The network will be built using 10 megahertz of spectrum already under the control of public safety organizations. In addition, the FCC would grant first responders "priority access" and wireless roaming rights to an additional 70 MHz of commercially owned spectrum, whose license holders would receive financial compensation.

But the fate of 10 MHz that sits adjacent to the spectrum already occupied by the public safety community remains unclear. In 2008, the FCC tried to auction those frequencies, known as the D-block, to a commercial bidder willing to share them with first responders and finance construction of their network. But no one came forward to cast the minimum bid.

Now, the agency will auction the D-block in early 2011 with no strings attached, though the winner and the public safety groups can enter into an agreement, at their discretion, to include the frequencies in the new network.

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