Public Safety Advocate: Open Letter to Congress—Public Safety Needs Your Help Now

Dear Members of the U.S. House and Senate:

There are bills pending in both the House and Senate that need your attention now!

We understand you are facing many pressing issues including funding bills to help America survive the COVID-19 pandemic and positioning the nation for an economic recovery. Meanwhile, those fighting the virus from 9-1-1 dispatchers, police, sheriffs, fire, EMS personnel, nurses, and doctors are working tirelessly to save lives and help the nation return to normal (or the new normal).

These people need assistance that only the U. S. Congress can provide. They need your action to pass bills entitled “Repeal the T-Band,” “Funding for NG911,” and others.  These bills are time sensitive, especially given the current situation here and around the world. I am not talking about Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which they desperately need, there are other things critical for them to be able to do their jobs. They need support for additional communications capabilities and they need it now. 

Most Urgent: Repeal the T-Band Giveback

The repeal of the T-Band giveback demanding that the public-safety community give back what is known as the “T-Band spectrum” is the most urgent issue and it will not cost the United States a dime. The T-Band giveback was included in Title VI of the Middle-Class Tax Relief Bill of 2012. This section of the bill provided additional radio spectrum for the first-responder community, funding for research to upgrade existing communications, and it created FirstNet, the Independent Authority reporting to the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA). In 1971, T-Band spectrum was made available to public-safety agencies in eleven major metro areas where it was not used by TV stations in these cities. This spectrum has greatly enhanced Land Mobile Radio (LMR) communications in the eleven major cities and adjacent counties. 

At the time the referenced bill was passed, there appeared to be a consensus in the House and Senate that this spectrum could be returned to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and auctioned for $Billions. The giveback is slated to begin in 2021 but the value of this spectrum at auction has changed since the bill was passed in 2012. In the February 21, 2017 issue of the Public Safety Advocate,[1] I wrote:

“The final bill that designated the give-back of the T-band was introduced on a Tuesday and passed that same Friday, precluding much discussion or many objections from the Public Safety community. Unfortunately, those who wrote this portion of the bill did not fully understand several things:

  • In addition to Public Safety in some of the cities, commercial LMR systems are also in use. These were not addressed by Congress nor were they required to vacate the spectrum.
  • The T-band allocation is for 1, 2, or 3 channels in each city but not for all of the spectrum, so there are TV channels on either side of the LMR allocations. This makes auctioning this spectrum for broadband use next to impossible and certainly deflates the value of the spectrum.
  • The auction would not be scheduled until 2021 and Public Safety would have to vacate the spectrum within two years. This is not a realistic amount of time to relocate large communications systems from one portion of spectrum to another (assuming there was somewhere else to build these systems). Any Public Safety-grade system takes a while to build and test to ensure that it is, in fact, Public Safety-grade.
  • The NTIA was the agency designated to administer grants for the cost of relocation but there are no guidelines for what costs would be covered and how soon the funds would be available.
  • There appears to have been a misconception in Congress by some that the FirstNet system would be able to accommodate all voice traffic in the T-band, even though at that point in time there were no voice standards for either push-to-talk or off-network communications for LTE.”

Today, FirstNet provides voice dial-up, voice Push-To-Talk (PTT), text, data, and still and video pictures. However, the push-to-talk available over FirstNet does NOT meet all the needs of the public-safety community. What is missing is the ability for push-to-talk users to talk directly to each other when they are out of range of the network or deep inside buildings where there is no network coverage. People are working to fix this off-network issue but a solution is not available today and probably won’t be for some time. 

This was followed by my assessment of the value of the T-Band if returned to the FCC and then auctioned:

  • “An auction of the T-band spectrum is not a viable alternative for the following reasons:
    • The 600-MHz auctions that started out as an auction for more than 108 MHz of spectrum has been trimmed and trimmed and will end up with less than 80 MHz of available spectrum, leaving another 20+ MHz for future auction.
    • The T-band spectrum is not well suited for mobile broadband systems
      • It is too low in the spectrum band and would require larger antennas and components not well suited for mobile devices.
      • T-band channels are only available for use in selective cities and metro areas and not on a nationwide basis. For example, TV channel 14 would only be available in six of the eleven areas, Channel 15 in only three areas, and so on. In other areas of the United States these channels are in use as TV channels and since they cannot be auctioned on a nationwide basis, their value is greatly diminished.

When TV stations were transmitting over the air in analog they needed all 6 MHz of their spectrum for the video and audio carriers. Today, using digital techniques, up to seven sub-carriers can be placed in the same amount of spectrum. In reality, the only reason for removing existing users from the T-band is to auction the spectrum, which, as mentioned above, is not worth a whole lot. The proceeds would not begin to pay for relocation of radio systems in use by the multitude of Public Safety agencies in these eleven metro areas, let alone to address the issue of what do to with the commercial systems now in operation on the T-band.

One of the premises for moving Public Safety off the T-band was the narrowbanding of other Public Safety spectrum in the VHF and UHF bands, that is, making more channels by making each channel smaller in size. However, before the T-band issue was raised, most if not all of these new channels were already allocated to Public Safety agencies that had been waiting, sometimes for years, to obtain more channels to help relieve overcrowding on their existing channels. Further, the fact that these channels were narrowbanded caused many systems to lose coverage area and systems had to be expanded simply to regain the coverage they used to have. All in all, the idea of relocating T-band systems to these new VHF and UHF channels could never be realized.”

The current law states that T-Band spectrum is to be auctioned by the FCC starting in 2021 (next year) and public safety must clear all public-safety operations within two years of the auction date. Now it is not possible to meet this deadline without severe and crippling consequences for the eleven metro areas using this spectrum. In March 2013, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) released an in-depth report[2] and concluded: “Given the lack of alternative spectrum, cost of relocation, major disruption to vital pubic safety services, and the likelihood that the spectrum auction would not even cover the cost of relocation costs, NPSTC believes implementing the T-Band Legislation is not feasible, provides no public interest benefit, and the matter should be re-visited by Congress”

NPSTC issued an update in May 2016[3] in which it detailed usage of the T-Band by analyzing and summarizing FCC license information. Since 2016, a number of public-safety organizations and agencies have written to Congress, visited with members, and attended hearings concerning repeal of the T-Band. In June 2019, the Government Accounting Office (GAO)[4]published a report stating that the T-Band should remain as it is today, available for the public-safety community in these eleven metro areas. Also in December 2019, the Chairman of the FCC called for Congress to repeal the T-Band mandate.[5]

From 2012 until today, the FCC has, for the most part, had to freeze public-safety entities, not allowing them to add new sites to improve coverage, or even relocate an existing site to provide better performance. In some cities, business radio users are also permitted to use the T-Band, yet the giveback provision of the 2012 bill does not address relocation of these business radio users. As a result, this spectrum, which has been used by public safety and business radio users since 1971, would not be cleared of business radio users and the spectrum would not be available for auction after all.

The bottom line is that without the T-Band radio channels, eleven of the most populous cities in the United States would not have adequate public-safety radio spectrum and would, therefore, not be able to provide the high level of service they do today. Below is a chart (courtesy of NPSTC) indicating the number of T-Band channels that would be lost to public safety if the giveback is enforced.

Running Out of Time

Congress must act on the two bills pending in the House and Senate (H.R. 451 Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2019 and Senate S. 2748 Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2019). It is imperative that both bills be passed NOW either as standalone bills or addendums to other bills. Public safety needs to know it can continue to use this spectrum. If the bills are not passed, eleven major metropolitan areas in the United States will not have sufficient radio spectrum for their public safety, law, fire, and EMS services. 

I respectfully request that both the House and Senate pass these bills as quickly as possible. The situation has become critical since there is no longer enough time, spectrum, or funding to establish effective communications in these areas without the T-Band. 

Andrew M. Seybold, Sr.
Public Safety Advocate

Winding Down

Today, April 23, 2020, the FCC is to vote on whether to permit unlicensed WiFi 6 use in the entire 1200 MHz of 6-GHz spectrum, which is already heavily populated with point-to-point microwave systems used by public safety, utilities, cellular networks, and many others. Many of these systems had to be moved from 2-GHz spectrum when the FCC decided to open that spectrum up for what was then called “Personal Communications Service” (PCS). Today this spectrum is considered to be simply a part of the broadband spectrum that was auctioned to the current group of cellular operators. 

A number of filings have questioned the advisability of unleashing unlicensed users in a band that is heavily populated with critical communications microwave systems. Yet the FCC, or at least some commissioners, are so bent on opening up this spectrum and so sure that the automatic spectrum assignment system for unlicensed users will work without any flaws that they have not built in any safeguards that I can see. As I stated in a recent Advocate, those who vote to approve this will probably not be in office once we start finding out if there are interference issues. The greatest danger I see is that if there is interference it might take a while to determine which unlicensed system is at fault and to resolve the problem. These types of delays are not acceptable with critical communications systems.

During the virus crisis, it is difficult to say enough about our first responders, including Emergency Communications Center (ECC) phone operators and dispatchers, law, fire, and EMS personnel. Others who are valiantly working around the clock to stem this pandemic include nurses, doctors, and all hospital staff. Then there are the truck drivers bringing supplies and food, grocery and other workers restocking shelves, restaurants preparing food for people involved in these efforts, and groups donating masks and other supplies. When the United States faces a crisis, we come together and work together for the common good.

Finally, we need to credit the FirstNet team that is building new sites, providing assistance and FirstNet-ready devices where needed, Cells on Wheels (COWs), and in-person support in ECCs and other areas where feet on the ground make a difference. As I see the increase in Internet usage and wireless broadband traffic, I am thankful public safety has its own network with priority access and pre-emption. FirstNet is vital to all those helping us remain safe and attending to those who need medical attention. FirstNet is providing solid communications and a level of agency-to-agency interoperability for our first responders like they have never experienced before. 

Thanks to all the people working so hard to keep us safe and who are putting themselves in harm’s way. 

Until Next Week…
Andrew M. Seybold

©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


[1] https://allthingsfirstnet.com/public-safety-advocate-congress-has-a-problem-called-the-t-band/

[2] http://www.npstc.org/download.jsp?tableId=37&column=217&id=2678&file=T_Band_Report_20130315.pdf

[3] http://www.npstc.org/download.jsp?tableId=37&column=217&id=3696&file=T_Band_Update_Report_Final.pdf

[4] https://www.nextgov.com/policy/2019/06/gao-dont-boot-emergency-personnel-t-band-spectrum/157969/

[5] https://www.fcc.gov/document/chairman-pai-calls-congress-repeal-t-band-mandate

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