Wednesday July 21, 2010 was a great day for Public Safety in Washington DC. The Public Safety Alliance (PSA) had arranged for a series of meetings with various House and Senate members and/or their staffs, meetings with the FCC and FCC Chairman, and a press conference in front of the Capital Building. Prior to the event, PSA members as well as many members from APCO had been working toward the goal of the introduction of legislation to re-allocate the 700-MHz D Block to Public Safety instead of it being auctioned to commercial interests.
The FCC’s recommendation to Congress in its National Broadband Report submitted in March of this year was to auction the D Block without any rules requiring the winner(s) to cooperate with Public Safety as in the previous auction. Further, the FCC continued to make its case at public meetings and with the publication of white papers, one on the cost savings that would be realized in network deployment and operation costs and one that contended that Public Safety did not need more than the 10 MHz of spectrum already allocated to it for broadband services.
Prior to the events scheduled for the 21st, Representative Peter King (R-NY) had introduced a bill (H.R. 5081) that would re-allocate the D Block to Public Safety but not provide for federal funding of the network. As of the week before the event, the bill had attracted 35 co-sponsors. There was also draft legislation being circulated by Representative Henry Waxman’s (D-CA) office providing funding for the network, BUT calling for the D Block to be auctioned to help defray the cost of the network.
No U.S. Senator had yet weighed in on the matter, and while the King bill was gaining sponsors, the Senate remained silent. Then on the morning of the 21st as the meetings were taking place, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) issued a press release stating he would be introducing a bill that would not only reallocate the D Block to Public Safety but would fund both network construction and operational expenses with proceeds from future auctions.
Meanwhile, the PSA had obtained an advance copy of a proposed Senate bill co-sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ) that called for the D Block to be re-allocated to Public Safety and included funding for the network using proceeds from future auctions. It even includes a provision that the U.S. Treasury could advance funds to the Public Safety community so construction of the networks could begin without having to wait for auction proceeds to be collected.
As time for the press conference drew near, the buzz around all of this activity was giving those attending a sense that perhaps Public Safety, with the help of Congress, could really reach its goal of acquiring the D Block and funding for network build-outs. The press conference, held outdoors in 97-degree weather with no shade in sight, was well attended by Public Safety, APCO, the press, and a number of Congressional staffers who have been working with members of the PSA on these issues. The actual press conference received a real boost when both Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain not only showed up, but spoke on behalf of the Public Safety community.
Following their speeches, various members of the PSA spoke as one at the event. It was pointed out several times that this was a historic occasion not only because of the new support from the Senators, but because this issue has solidified the Public Safety community and, through the PSA, its members are acting as a single organization. Even though the PSA is made up of a wide variety of Public Safety entities, they are all working together for the common good of the entire community. It is this unity, I believe, that has helped convince various members of Congress that this matter deserves their attention and that re-allocating the D Block and funding the networks is necessary to provide Public Safety with a true nationwide, interoperable data network that in the future will also include interoperable voice communications (but will not be a replacement for existing mission-critical voice networks).
I was included in a number of meetings with Congressmen and staffers on Wednesday and Thursday. At each meeting, we were greeted cordially, our points were listened to, and questions were asked and answered. Though not all of those meetings resulted in a promise of support, by the end of the day on Wednesday, the number of co-sponsors of the King bill had grown from 35 to 56 and it is still growing. One of the most interesting things about the political system we have in place in the United States is that we now have enough momentum behind the bill so that Congressmen are asking their staffers to sign them up as co-sponsors as well.
Shortly after Senator Rockefeller issued his press announcement about his bill introduction, the FCC sent out notices to the press that it would hold a press call. Most of the press on the call had only about twenty minutes warning so it is obvious that this call was supposed to be a swift reaction to the Rockefeller press release. Since I was in meetings and not on the call, I have talked to several people who were and they all have told me the same thing. The call was “on background” and the FCC participants could not be referred to by name, but missing from the call was Admiral Barnett, the head of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, which is the group within the FCC that has been pushing to have the D Block auctioned.
The call provided inconclusive information about a possible FCC shift in stance regarding the D Block auction, but one statement was interesting in itself. When asked about the FCC’s position on the D Block, the response was that the FCC had ALWAYS believed it was up to Congress to determine the fate of the D Block and not the FCC, since currently the FCC is under direction from Congress to auction the D Block.
The reason I find this comment so interesting is that the FCC, in the National Broadband Report and many communications and public meetings since then, has ALWAYS strongly recommended to Congress that the D Block be auctioned. The National Broadband Report states, “The FCC should quickly license the D block for commercial use, while implementing several requirements for the D block licensee(s) to maximize options for partnerships with public safety. First, the FCC should require the D block and the public safety broadband licensee(s) each to operate their networks using the same air interface technology standard. The emerging consensus of the public safety community and carriers is that 700 MHz networks will use the Long Term Evolution (LTE) family of standards.”—Contained in section 16.1 of the plan. In both the costing and capacity white papers published by the FCC after the report was submitted to Congress, the conclusions were that the D Block must be auctioned, and it must be auctioned quickly. Not ONCE in any of its written or spoken comments, has the FCC ever said that the fate of the D Block should be decided by Congress.
When the National Broadband Report first came out, I wrote about how the FCC was adamant about the D Block being auctioned and I questioned its motivation for its recommendations, stating that the FCC could have simply indicated to Congress that this was a matter that should be decided by Congress. Instead, it used its role as the telecommunications advisory organization to Congress to strongly recommend that the D Block, in fact, should be auctioned. Subsequently, the FCC reiterated that position over and over again. However, if its stance now is that it has always felt this was a matter for Congress to decide, I guess I will give it the benefit of the doubt. After all, this is not about proving someone or some agency wrong, it is about doing the right thing for Public Safety.
Timing Is Critical
I have been told by several members of the DC press that Rockefeller’s press release, in and of itself, has taken the option of a 2011 D Block auction off the table. However, I am hoping that while the pending and draft legislation is being combined in a single bill (see below), senior members of Congress will write a letter to the FCC Chairman telling him (or is that ‘suggesting’?) that the D Block is not available for auction until Congress has had a chance to deliberate and pass a bill to send to the President for his signature.
In the meantime, there are two courses of action that might be possible here. The best, as far as the Public Safety community is concerned, is that during August, House and Senate staffers convene and work out two bills, one for the House and one for the Senate that are identical or nearly identical in their wording. These bills should include, at the very least, re-allocation of the D Block to Public Safety, allowing Public Safety to lease spectrum to others in areas where it won’t all be needed (rural America), and funding for both the construction and operational costs of the series of networks that will make up the nationwide national broadband Public Safety interoperable network, and perhaps going as far as funding development of chipsets and devices to ensure that Public Safety will have timely and economical access to a variety of types of devices.
If these bills can be crafted in August and introduced in early September, there is a good chance they could be passed into law by the end of September. If this does not happen, this matter will once again have to drag on until after the elections in November. Not that the outcome of the elections will change the D Block outcome, but by the end of September, Congress will be pre-occupied with the upcoming elections and very little will get done. Since I believe the outcome will favor Public Safety, I would obviously like to see a law passed by the end of September so the Public Safety community can gear up and get the networks underway. Failing that, it is imperative that the FCC be directed to withhold the D Block from the auction block until Congress has had time to act on the pending bills.
There is no guarantee that Public Safety will, in fact, end up with the D Block and funding for the networks, but I believe that the chances are much better than they were only a few months ago. One Congressional staffer told me that if the right bills are introduced, they should sail through Congress since he does not believe anyone in either the House or Senate will vote against Public Safety. I hope he is correct and I am struck with the dedication of many of the staffers who are telling me that they intend to get the bills written in August for a September introduction. Nothing is for sure in Washington DC and I am certainly not declaring victory, but I am very encouraged by the happenings in Washington DC on the 21st and 22nd of July. I was fortunate to be a part of these historic two days. I have been working relentlessly on this, along with many others, and I believe we are about to achieve Public Safety’s goals of acquiring both the D Block and funding.
My hat is off to all those from the Public Safety community and the private sector who have worked so long and hard on this issue. It is truly amazing how everyone has come together for the betterment of Public Safety, which also translates to better Public Safety services for all of us. For my part, I will continue to push and prod whenever and wherever I feel it is needed and I honestly hope that those within the FCC who have pushed for a different outcome will not feel as though they were defeated. Our system is built on healthy debate, and the ultimate decision is still up to Congress. If the D Block is re-allocated to Public Safety, there will be no losers. We will all be winners.
Andrew M. Seybold