Even with the partisan and fiscally constrained environment facing us in 2011, Washington can move forward to improve interoperable communications for first responders.
Long before the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001 the need for modern interoperable communications was an issue for first responders. As far back as 1995, the absence of interoperable public safety networks hampered first responders' work at the sites of such tragedies as the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. At the scene of such an event, it is imperative that the service branches -- fire, police and emergency medical services -- be able to communicate among one another to ensure the safety of possible victims as well as their fellow first officers and medical responders.
Nearly a decade after September 11, 2001, and after expenditures of billions of dollars by the federal, state and local governments, first responders still have no interoperable communications network. Through my experience as Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and working with public-private partnerships I recognize that the technology currently exists to fix this problem, but the lack of political will and turf battles over spectrum continue to slow progress. The broadband plan for public safety communications that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently released (1) addresses this challenge for the next generation of public safety communications, (2) gives first responders the modern equipment they need to effectively communicate among one another, (3) provides a very significant boost to the national economy as well as many local economies and (4) creates jobs while saving billions of tax dollars.
But the FCC's plan has been stalled by debate over what to do with a piece of spectrum called the D Block, which is located in the Upper 700 MHz Band that was formerly used by television broadcasters. The D Block and other spectrum located in the Upper 700 MHz band is desirable because of its excellent suitability for carrying signals over long distances and through building walls.
The current debate over the D Block boils down to two choices at this time: First, the FCC will make this spectrum available for auction to private carriers, which have the expertise to rapidly build out a nationwide broadband network. Once built, first responders would be given priority access to the system during times of emergency. Second, the spectrum could be reassigned to public safety organizations with the expectation that the federal government would appropriate additional funds to build a dedicated public safety broadband network. The FCC's plan favors the first approach -- auctioning the spectrum, which is clearly the better course of action.
Because competition among the wireless carriers is tough, they are motivated to build a quality nationwide network that not only retains existing customers and attracts new ones, but will allow first responders priority access during an emergency. Thus, public safety will have an interoperable network up and running long before the government would be able to design and build a system.
Also, a network built by competitive commercial carriers allows public safety entities to tap into the more competitive ecosystem of handset and network manufacturers of commercial carriers. This allows public safety users to get the most capable equipment at competitive prices. Right now, our first responders use radios with outdated technology and less functionality than the typical smart phone available to most teenagers. Moreover, the price of these old-fashioned handsets is many times the cost of more functional modern equipment because the relatively small public safety market is served by only a few specialty suppliers.
Ultimately, first responders as well as consumers in many rural areas could also have access to wireless broadband service. This is a matter of equity; small town and rural America should be able to access the same technology as those who live in major metropolitan areas. However, this might not become a reality if the D Block is reallocated exclusively to public safety. Taxpayers eventually would have to fund the costly build-out of the network where they live.
The deployment of private capital to quickly build a network will create new jobs and support economic growth nationwide. Tower suppliers, ironworkers, electricians, equipment suppliers and other contractors will see immediate demand for their services. Many of these jobs will be created in severely depressed areas of our country.
The proceeds from the D Block spectrum auction could help state and local governments buy new equipment compatible with the new network. That money could also help public safety entities build networks on the spectrum that the FCC has already given them, adjacent to the D Block. In this way, the federal government will not have to fund the construction of the new network. Also, through the auction, the government will enable the deployment of non-tax revenue to help the hard pressed jurisdictions across the country get newer, more capable, interoperable and less expensive equipment for their first responders.
What our first responders need is a functional, modern, interoperable broadband network. And they need it now. What we as Americans deserve is the highest level of protection at the best value for our tax dollars. What none of us can risk is another decade of vulnerability, debate and turf battles. The right choice for America is to do things differently to solve this problem for our first responders. We can't afford to get it wrong.