Public Safety Spectrum Alliance – Is the Public at Risk?

by Karl Wilmes, Police Chief (Ret)

Public safety spectrum serves the mission critical communications needs of first responders charged with the protection of life and property, such as police, fire fighters and Emergency Medical Service (EMS) providers. The challenges facing public safety, specifically law enforcement in the 21st century are numerous. Therefore, the ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for state-based licensing for public safety operations in the 4.9 GHz band is extremely disappointing and has the potential to be life threatening.

The FCC draft report and order would allow states to lease the 50 megahertz allocated to public safety in the 4.9 GHz band to commercial and other entities. The concern is the FCC is delegating authority to state governments to manage the 4.9 GHz band, including the right to determine who may use the spectrum and for what purpose. This creates an opportunity for misuse of this valuable spectrum which was previously allocated by the FCC exclusively for public safety users. The decision would allow state governments to deploy systems on this spectrum for commercial arrangements rather than for public safety.  As a result, the inability of public safety to communicate during a crisis could lead to the loss of life and property.

In 2002, largely in response to the September 11th attacks, the FCC allocated fifty (50) megahertz of nationwide spectrum in the 4940-4990 MHz band (4.9 GHz band) exclusively to support public safety. It should not be forgotten that the deaths of first responders and many citizens during the September 11, 2000 attacks can be directly attributed to the failure of the first responder communications systems.

The FCC believes their recent ruling allowing states to lease the 4.9 GHz spectrum to third parties will boost wireless broadband availability, specifically in rural parts of America.  No one can argue that internet access is critical to ensure better education, economic opportunity, and job creation in our communities. Understandably, rural communities across America are desperate for high-speed internet access.

Yet not all agree this idea by the FCC is the magic formula to fix rural broadband. In fact, current FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been a champion for rural broadband for years while serving on the FCC called the decision “unfortunate”. Chairwoman Rosenworcel stated, “It is not the right way forward for the 4.9 GHz band. It is a slapdash effort to try to foster use of this spectrum by giving states the right to divert public safety communications in exchange for revenue.” On this point, the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance agrees.

Rural America justifiably expresses their frustration with the lack of broadband in their communities. However, it is unrealistic to assume that one tower in a community will solve access to the internet in small communities across America. The build out of broadband will necessitate substantial investment in critical infrastructure in every community.

The properties of the 4.9 GHz spectrum will require the buildout of numerous towers in each community. One must also remember that 50 MHz of spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band is not an endless trough of spectrum. The notion of splitting up the spectrum between public safety, utilities, and commercial entities to leverage the spectrum is impractical. With such limited spectrum availability, communities would likely divide the spectrum between these different user group, thus resulting  insufficient spectrum for any one of  the user group. We must remind ourselves that spectrum is a finite resource. No one can create more of it.

So, can we trust the states with managing this valuable community resource?  The answer is a resounding no.  Look no further than how the states have had difficulty working together to support the public during the recent pandemic. In some states the response has been chaotic at best.

Leasing the 4.9 GHz band is an impractical idea. The FCC Order places no restrictions on the type of entity to which a state can lease or the type of services that the lessee can provide. State governments will thus be able to forego public safety use of the band in favor of increased revenue under the pretext of balancing the needs of public safety and the benefits to the states. States will be able to choose whether they want to require priority access for public safety and soon will be allowed to deny public safety access or prioritize non-public safety operations. It will be a cash cow for state budget offices. Rural broadband in small communities and public safety will be forgotten in this “moneyball” scenario.

Next, there is the issue of protecting existing licenses for public safety. Will states protect existing public safety licensees on the 4.9 GHz band? In many jurisdictions, local public safety agencies have spent millions of dollars investing in networks on the 4.9 GHz band. Then there is the issue of interoperability involving interstate communications. Public safety does not stop at state borders. 

Trust is an essential element of civic life and neighborly relations, and when Americans think about trust in government these days, they rightfully worry. The number one job of government is to protect you. Nearly twenty years ago, the FCC allocated 50 MHz of spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band for exclusive use by public safety. The need for public safety spectrum is even more fundamental today than ever before.  Public safety will need the 4.9 GHz spectrum to host dedicated networks that support functionality such as camera networks, robots, gunshot detection software, license plate recognition, facial recognition, drones, Internet of Things (IOT), artificial intelligence (AI), telemedicine, and augmented reality. These new technologies will help drive innovation and new efficiencies in public safety.

The FCC is taking back the 50 MHz of public safety broadband while at the same time they and the U.S. Congress have stated that the future for radio communications is for broadband systems and services. The FCC is stripping the public safety community of 71 percent of the broadband spectrum which was, until the September 30, 2020 rule making, available for use by public safety.

We all agree that education and access to rural broadband in all communities is important. However, the unfortunate ruling by the FCC creates a stark choice.  Rather than states forecasting what amount of the 4.9 GHz spectrum that may be adopted for public safety and limiting its use, the spectrum should be dedicated as a fundamental tool necessary to keep the public safe.

Nearly two decades ago, America vowed to never forget the events of September 11, 2001. Following those tragic events, the FCC designated the 4.9 GHz band in support of public safety to protect the public. Today’s public safety community faces a variety of challenges that test technological capabilities to share information. The 4.9 GHz band is more important to public safety today than ever before. The FCC needs to recognize this reality and return this spectrum resource to public safety.

Karl W. Wilmes


Karl W. Wilmes served as the Chief of Police for the City of Federal Heights, Colorado from January 2015 until his retirement in January 2018. During his career in law enforcement, while leading three agencies, he developed a culture of police and community involvement and organizational accountability.

Prior to his appointment as Chief of Police, at the City of Federal Heights, Karl served as the Homeland Security Director for Colorado (OPSFS) and Deputy Director for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Serving as Deputy Director for the CBI, Karl was responsible to provide direction and management oversight for the CBI business units and all state criminal justice information systems.

Karl continues to remain active in law enforcement advising clients on public safety wireless communication, CJIS (data sharing), biometrics, strategic planning, investigations, and training. Professionally, Karl is a member of numerous organizations.

He serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) national CJIS committee. He remains an active member at IACP and is a member of the Police Executive Research Forum. During his career he participated on numerous national and statewide criminal justice boards. Locally, he is a past president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and currently a member.

Karl has a Master’s degree in Management and a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. He is a graduate of the Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Senior Executives in State and Local Government leadership program, the 187th session of the FBI National Academy and Northwestern University’s School of Police Staff and Command.


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