Senate Advances Legislation to Preserve T-Band Spectrum for Emergency Personnel

Medical workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013.

Medical workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Charles Krupa/AP

Experts agree that Congress must reverse a rule to protect the crucial band set aside specifically for first responders in dense cities.

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to auction off the T-Band, a sliver of the spectrum set solely for public safety personnel across 11 dense cities to securely communicate during emergencies, in 2021.

Yet legislation to keep it from happening is swiftly advancing across the Senate. 

A bill aimed at preserving first responders’ access—The Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act—introduced in October by Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bob Casey, D-Penn., moved through the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday as a provision of the 5G Spectrum Act.

“When a firefighter in Massachusetts reaches for the radio to call for backup, that first responder relies on the T-Band. When a 911 dispatcher sends police to the scene of a crime, that’s the T-Band in action. And after the Boston Marathon bombing, first responders used T-Band to coordinate with each other during the ensuing manhunt,” Markey said in a statement. “We owe it to the public safety community to provide the infrastructure and tools they need to do their jobs.”

The T-Band was assigned in the early 1970s, due to high populations and the density of communication systems in 11 of America’s most metropolitan cities. Don Root, the chair of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council’s Spectrum Management Committee, told Nextgov Thursday that the legislation is necessary because that high usage still exists today. He said the majority of the large public safety radio systems in areas like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York operate in the T-band. The other spectrum in those areas is occupied by smaller public safety agency systems, or large systems in the surrounding adjacent areas. 

“What I can say is that the need is real,” Root said.

In 2012, a provision in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act mandated the FCC to start auctioning off that spectrum used by safety officials in February 2021. Doug Brake, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s director of Broadband and Spectrum Policy, told Nextgov that back then, the T-Band was assumed to eventually be a desirable band for mobile services. Now, a modern focus on mid-band spectrum and advancements in technology essentially eliminated the demand for that auction, he said.

“It would be expensive and disruptive to move the incumbents,” Brake noted. “There is pretty widespread agreement that Congress should change the law so the FCC is not required to auction this spectrum.”

The Government Accountability Office also published its own report in June, indicating that auctioning off the band could detrimentally impact people’s ability to maintain communication on a daily basis and in times of danger. GAO also suggested that relocating T-Band users to other bands of spectrum could cost billions—and for many T-Band users, alternative bands are pretty limited or “nonexistent.” Noting the necessity to preserve first responders’ access, the FCC’s Chairman also asked Congress earlier this month to repeal the mandate to auction T-Band spectrum.

“This legislation is certainly a step in the right direction, though considering it is important the bill actually passes, I wish it was starting from a bipartisan position on introduction,” Brake said.