Momentum builds for devoting D-block to public safety

Efforts to harness a coveted chunk of spectrum known as the D-block for a planned nationwide emergency-communications network received a major boost on Thursday with the introduction of legislation cosponsored by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and panel member John McCain, R-Ariz.

The bill, the Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011, would reserve the frequencies for police, fire, and rescue squads, allowing them to double the capacity of the envisioned network, which could cost up to $12 billion to build. The measure also would use revenue from upcoming auctions of other spectrum to help pay for construction and maintenance of the infrastructure.

The network would feature state-of-the-art mobile-broadband technology that provides secure and instantaneous transmissions of videos, maps, and other data.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., included similar provisions in a broader spectrum bill scheduled for a vote before his panel the week of June 6. Rockefeller held a news conference on Tuesday to drum up support for his legislation. The McCain/Lieberman bill adds two prominent senators from different parties to Rockefeller's camp.

Both measures are a blow to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and wireless providers such as T-Mobile and Sprint that have advocated auctioning the D-block to commercial carriers to free up more bandwidth for consumer use. They have argued that first responders already have enough frequencies for their network.

A coalition of emergency groups back the bills, saying the extra capacity is necessary to guarantee an effective response to tragedies on the scale of the 9/11 terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which devastated much of the Gulf Coast.

"Securing the D-block for public safety will allow us to build a nationwide interoperable network for emergency communications that could prevent the kinds of communication meltdowns we had during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina," Lieberman said in a statement.

On the House side, prominent GOP lawmakers have been more sympathetic to Genachowski's approach because an auction of the spectrum could raise an estimated $3.2 billion for the Treasury. House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., has scheduled a hearing on the topic for Wednesday.