Public Safety Advocate: Updates on What Public Safety Needs from Congress

This week APCO sent out an email asking for all of us to support the 9-1-1 Saves Act. This bill will upgrade 9-1-1 professionals and reclassify them as Protective Service employees. This should have been done years ago and I hope the re-designation will carry forward to non-sworn public safety dispatchers. There is a link for this important bill and a guide for you to follow on how to notify your U.S. Senators and Representatives, so please do so.

This is only one of the significant pieces of legislation that should be passed by Congress and signed into law. The issues I am concerned about include the T-Band, NG911, and 4.9 GHz if the FCC doesn’t leave it alone. The most recent bill introduced in the House replaces H.R.3994, which was passed in 2018 but died in the Senate where no vote was taken. This year it is back as H.R.1328 and must once again make the rounds. 

I believe H.R.1328 is of vital interest to the public safety community. It is the Access Broadband Act that would create a single organization for tracking and helping implement rural and poverty-level broadband. Today there are numerous federal and state agencies involved in grants and loans, but there seems to be a serious lack of coordination. The Access Broadband Act is extremely important to rural broadband coverage and as such should be supported by the public safety community. Currently, its odds of gaining passage are slight unless more sponsors from both parties join the effort.


During the previous term of Congress, the Senate introduced S.2061, The Next Generation 9-1-1 Act, designed to amend the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) organization act to require 9-1-1 funding. No new bills have been introduced since in either the House or the Senate although a number of organizations have been putting forth great efforts toward the introduction of a new bill for the same purpose.

Spectrum Issues

This brings us to two of the most urgent spectrum issues public safety faces. First is the give-back of the T-band (470-512 MHz). For many years, this spectrum has been used by public safety and, in some areas, business radio users. It was “borrowed” from TV spectrum (channels 14-20) but only some of these channels are used in each of the eleven major metro areas. Reclaiming this spectrum would not result in a wide enough swath of spectrum to be suitable for other purposes. When Congress enacted FirstNet in 2012 by adding Title VI to the Middle-Class Tax Relief Bill of 2012, it ordered the T-Band to be returned to the FCC for reuse in 2022.

Since then the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPTSC) and others have weighed in and I have written several articles discussing this issue. The reason Congress set its sights on the T-Band appears to be two-fold. First, it wanted something in return in order to justify awarding the D Block, an additional 10 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum now part of FirstNet’s Band 14, to public safety. Second, some in Congress believed, and may still believe, freeing up this spectrum and “selling” it would result in billions and billions of dollars for the U.S. Government.

Perhaps in early 2012 those in Congress who voted to require the return of the T-Band were correct that this was valuable spectrum. However, TV stations never paid for use of the spectrum and the channel width of 6 MHz supported only a single TV station using analog technology. Today, the same channel can host two, three, or perhaps more digital TV stations. 

Next let’s look at broadband wireless since this is where all the $billions from spectrum auctions are being generated. The remaining upper TV channels became the most recent TV spectrum auctioned because the FCC thought there would be a huge demand for this 600-MHz spectrum. However, they were not able to auction all the spectrum they made available and what was sold went for prices well below other spectrum. This is because by the time the 600-MHz auctions were held, the broadband community had “discovered” 5G small cell technology. Small cells cover a fraction of what is covered by large cell sites but at much higher data rates and more capacity. The industry had become more interested in spectrum in the gigahertz range than the 600-MHz range.

The result of all this is that T-Band spectrum, essential for public safety in eleven major metro areas and their suburbs including volunteer fire departments with little money, remains the highest and best use of this spectrum. This Congress needs to pass a bill similar to the one introduced in the previous session of Congress. Introduced in the House, that bill was called, “Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act.” This year saw the introduction of H.R.451, “Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2019.” While I try my best to leave politics alone, I can’t help but notice most of the major metro areas served by the T-Band are in Democratic areas. With today’s politics, I hope this will not influence this legislation and that some from the other party will understand how critical this bill is and that it must be passed this term. Those now using the T-Band need assurances they won’t have to relocate or come up with the millions of dollars it would cost, even if other suitable spectrum were to become available, which won’t be the case.

4.9 GHz and 6 GHz

What is the difference between these two bands? Currently, the 4.9-GHz spectrum includes 50 MHz allocated to public safety for what was intended to be WiFi-like communications that require one of two types of license. The first is a generic area-wide license that can be held by a public safety agency for use of this spectrum in its area. The second is a point-to-point license that must be filed if using 4.9 GHz for that purpose. I believe this type of service will increase in demand as agencies put higher-resolution cameras in service. Such cameras, whether mounted permanently or temporarily, use 4.9 GHz to send the video back to a central location for monitoring. 

It might be said that the FCC was, for once, a little ahead of itself when it issued this spectrum to public safety. However, now is not the time to share it with others or take it back for auctions. Since FirstNet came on the scene, 4.9 GHz is becoming more important, not less, and it must remain in service for exclusive use of the public safety community. 

The 6-GHz spectrum is also endangered at this point because the FCC seems to be leaning toward authorizing unlicensed users in the same spectrum used for public safety, utilities, and other critical microwave point-to-point systems. When all users are licensed and can be identified, protecting the spectrum from interference is straightforward because issues can then be discussed with the offending user and resolved. When licensed and unlicensed users are mixed together, there is potential for interference to critical systems with little or no recourse when and if there is an issue. It is beginning to look as though our federal government listens more to those with dollars for auctions and votes (unlicensed users). There are plans to use the same type of technology currently used for white spaces between TV stations, which means a database of all existing users and a way for an unlicensed user to be “assigned” by the database to a segment of spectrum that should not interfere with anyone. So far, this system has not worked 100-percent of the time for white spaces, so I am concerned it may not work for this application either. 

At a recent meeting at the White House, both the President and the FCC Chairman spoke about 5G and how it should be built by the private sector and not the government. It was not surprising that the conversation focused on money. I heard more about the $billions to be gained by the U.S. Treasury if the private sector bid on more 5G spectrum (already scheduled for later this year). I did not hear much about the actual spectrum and what it is being used for today. It appears that spectrum is cash, and cash is what it takes to attract attention in DC.

Winding Down

When many people from the public safety sector, governor’s and mayor’s groups, and vendors were visiting members of Congress and their staffers, they heard a great deal about the funds that would be lost to the nation’s coffers if the spectrum was reallocated to public safety—not about the needs of public safety. What I find most interesting is that the topic of conversation was not about broadband or license-free WiFi that was used by companies building this country, or public safety departments, or even the Secret Service. It was about Land Mobile Radio (LMR), which we called two-way radio in the early days. Yes, unlicensed spectrum has its place. Broadband has certainly found a home here and around the world, but I have to wonder if streaming a video to a handset via broadband is as important as making sure a family is safe or a delivery is made on time. 

FirstNet was born out of the need for safety and accuracy, but it won’t replace the spectrum that will be taken away if we lose the T-Band. It may not even replace spectrum we could lose at 4.9 GHz. And it certainly won’t replace microwave systems, including those used by FirstNet (Built with AT&T) to backhaul voice and data services. FirstNet is the next generation of public safety communications and it is here now. However, that does not mean those in power, today or tomorrow, can simply assume FirstNet negates the need for the T-Band, 4.9 GHz, 6 GHz, or any other public safety spectrum in use today. 

FirstNet is providing great services to public safety but it cannot, now or perhaps ever, provide off-network (simplex, talk-around) services on a par with what LMR has been providing for almost seventy years. Will FirstNet ever replace all other forms of public safety communications except NG911? Some people think so, but I will reserve judgment on that aspect of FirstNet while I continue to support FirstNet, LMR, and NG911. When all these services are fully available for public safety, our first responders will have a better set of communications tools than ever before and the benefits in lives saved (including their own) and reduction of property losses will be measurable.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

May 9, 2019, Phoenix AZ

If you are involved with public safety communications and will be in the area, drop me a note and request an invite to our Spring Cocktail and BBQ Get-Together. If you are a vendor wanting to reach out to public safety communications professionals in the Phoenix area, contact me to discuss an opportunity to join us as a sponsor.

June 1, 2019, Prescott AZ

I will be presenting at the ARRL Arizona Ham Radio Conference. While my session will certainly discuss ham radio and where it fits in during times of emergencies, it will also be a primer on FirstNet discussing what it is, how it works, and how it came about. If you are a member of the public safety community and would like to attend, let me know and I will extend a complimentary pass for this session that starts at 11:30 a.m. and will finish about 1 p.m.


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