GAO: Don’t Boot Emergency Personnel from T-Band Spectrum

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First responders don’t have an easy replacement.

The Government Accountability Office urged Congress to protect America’s first responders from being booted from communicating on a sliver of the spectrum the Federal Communications Commission is poised to auction in 2021. 

The T-Band is a portion of the spectrum used by public safety officials across 11 of the nation’s most densely populated cities for mission-critical voice communications regarding and during emergencies. The Federal Communications Commission was mandated in 2012 to auction off the T-Band public safety spectrum in 2021, but a report from GAO highlights the challenges local governments and emergency personnel anticipate in relocating their communications from the T-Band.

After studying FCC’s plans and key areas where public safety officials use T-Band to communicate, GAO suggests the move could cause substantial harmful impacts on people’s ability to maintain communication on a daily basis and in times of danger.

“[P]ublic safety officials in New York City said they believe the T-Band auction would severely negatively affect their ability to respond to emergencies and could lead to the loss of lives,” GAO said. After sharing similar sentiments from the Boston police department, the agency added, “these officials said that auctioning the T-Band and forcing them to relocate and build a new system over several years would disrupt critical public safety communications and be disastrous.”

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 required the FCC start auctioning off the spectrum that's being used by safety officials in February 2021. While organizations must move their communications to another part of the spectrum within two years of the auction's end, GAO noted a lack of strong reasoning for the move.

“While one purpose of spectrum auctions is to recover the public portion of the value of spectrum, FCC officials told us that the Act and its legislative history do not explain the purpose of the T-Band auction and relocation, and we confirmed the absence of legislative history for the auction mandate,” GAO said. 

GAO also found there is no other spectrum available for emergency personnel to relocate their communications to in five of the 11 metropolitan areas. 

“In March 2019 FCC officials told us that based on their analysis alternative spectrum relocation options for public safety users are limited or non-existent,” the report said.

Interoperability is also a critical feature of the T-Band that insiders said could not be replaced following relocation. For example, GAO said New York City officials noted that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 demonstrated the catastrophes that can occur when first responders cannot adequately communicate across multiple organizations. At the time, there was no system in place to allow police, fire, and emergency medical services to easily connect. 

“As a result, officials said New York City has spent countless hours and millions of dollars to improve interoperability, and that the interoperable system currently in place is based on the T-Band,” GAO said.

Relocating operations from one band to another is also an extremely costly endeavor. GAO said estimates around the total cost would be between $5 and $6 billion—which may be much more than the auction will reimburse. The FCC predicted auction revenue would not exceed $2 billion.

GAO noted FCC officials said because of the likely low value that the T-Band will be auctioned at, there is a “strong likelihood” auction proceeds won’t cover relocation costs. FCC also noted that the legislation does not address what would happen if the auctions did not produce enough funds to cover T-Band relocation costs. 

“Consequently, public safety stakeholders from Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City expressed concern about moving forward with relocating,” the report said. 

GAO said though FCC recognizes that the T-Band auction relocation requirement will pose severe problems for public safety entities, “officials said they will design and conduct the spectrum auction, as required, unless the law is changed.”

The agency said Congress must consider legislation that would allow the T-Band to continue to be used by public safety officials that need it most. 

And there is legislation to consider. The Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2019 was introduced in January to repeal the T-Band relocation auction and requirements, but it was referred to a subcommittee and, as of this month, no other action has been taken.