D-Block allocation to public safety is 'done'

Allocation of the D-Block of 700 MHz spectrum for the purposes of building a nationwide, interoperable emergency communications network is all but sealed

By Doug Wyllie
FireRescue1 Staff

WASHINGTON — Congress has agreed to allocate the D-Block to public safety and support the development of a mission-critical, nationwide public safety broadband network.

The provisions are included in the conference report to the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (H.R. 3630), which the House and Senate were due to vote on on Friday or Saturday.

According to the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a summary of the provisions included in Title IV of the conference report includes:

  • The D Block will be allocated to public safety. 
  • Governance of the network by a new First Responder Network Authority will be within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Department of Commerce. 
  • Incentive auctions will provide $7 billion for construction of the network.
  • In approximately 11 years, public safety organizations will be required to give back spectrum currently in use in the T Band. The agreement includes provisions to pay for their relocation to the 700 MHz band.

In a live webcast press conference held Thursday afternoon, four key Democratic Senators — Jay Rockefeller, Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Frank Lautenberg — invoked stories about police, fire, and EMS personnel killed on 9/11 as they announced an historic deal to give America's first responders a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network.

"Huge day"
"This is sort of a huge day for America," Rockefeller said as the event began.  "Days like this don't come around very often.  This doesn't cost the taxpayers a dime.  It will save endless numbers of lives of first responders. 

"With this new high-tech capability, firefighters will be able to instantaneously download floor plans before they go into the buildings to see what they're up against. 

"Cops will have access to criminal histories before they approach a suspect all on handheld devices which will be available at every level all across the country in one, integrated, truly national first responders communications system. 

"EMTs will be able to communicate potentially life-saving information to doctors in the emergency room before they get there—descriptions pictures of the wounded.  It's the best kind of reform."

The imminent new legislation will allocate the D-Block — that 10 MHz of spectrum immediately adjacent to that which is already licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — to first responders across America. 

Chief Al Gillespie, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said, "Today's victory is not just a victory for the fire service," said Gillespie, "Thanks to our allies in public safety, government and industry, it's a victory for our communities."  

Furthermore, the bill provides up to $300 million for critical research and development into next-generation public safety communications technology.

Public safety input
Equally important elements to the D-Block agreement announced Thursday is that it provides extensive opportunities for public safety input and leadership in the development, operation, and maintenance of the network.

Finally, it creates an independent First Responder Network Authority, which will be housed under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), to develop the public safety network. 

The authority will be housed within NTIA, but will have separate leadership, including a board with public safety, commercial, federal, state and local expertise to oversee the D-Block license and development of the network.

The D-Block allocation legislation is in "wet, but drying ink" Rockefeller said during the press event.  "Details aren't all as clear as they should be, but it's all done."

There have been a variety of very strong pieces of the puzzle put into place this time around which give this attempt at D-Block allocation a much greater chance of success than any other iteration we've previously seen.

For starters, the agreement leverages existing commercial wireless networks to promote cost-effective deployment of the network.  It also ensures efficiency from a national model which is translatable to state and/or regional deployment and control. 

"To the extent that states do not want to participate in a national system, and believe they can develop their own interoperable systems, this model permits state efforts to develop radio access networks that use the national evolved packet core," explains a data sheet provided to me by one of my Capitol Hill contacts.

Efficient spectrum use
Furthermore, this legislation directs the FCC to auction underutilized government spectrum to commercial wireless providers. It also provides the agency with voluntary incentive auction authority, which will promote efficient spectrum use.

These auctions will raise billions of dollars — to help fund the public safety network and also lower the deficit. The FCC will be required to permit any interested entity to have the ability to bid in new spectrum auctions.

Finally, the agreement preserves the opportunity for nationwide unlicensed use of spectrum known as "white spaces," while still maximizing the amount of spectrum that can be auctioned for commercial use. Unlicensed spectrum has been an engine of economic innovation and growth.

Today, unlicensed uses include Wi-Fi connections for laptops, television remote controls, and cordless telephones. In the future, unlicensed spectrum is expected to enable new forms of communication, like 'Super Wi-Fi.'

A written statement issued late Thursday by the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) — which represents nine of the major national public safety associations — lauded the "bicameral, bipartisan leadership and support Congress" which has negotiated this legislation. PSA said further that the compromise bill announced today is "a clear blueprint for realizing comprehensive interoperability of our emergency communications nationwide, and secures the path forward for public safety communications for decades to come."

"This legislation will modernize the emergency communications capabilities to better protect our citizens," stated the PSA, "who are served by the more than two million first responders across the nation.  Further by leveraging commercial technologies, Public Safety will be effective stewards of a scarce national asset, spectrum.

"This will result in future taxpayer savings at every level of government through more efficient use of spectrum. Most importantly, Congress and the Administration are making America safer as law enforcement, fire, emergency medical, emergency management and other public safety personnel finally obtain the communications tools they need to better protect our citizens and respond to emergencies each and every day."

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