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The tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 is fast approaching. This date represents a major milestone, not only for our collective memories, reactions and grief to the tragedies of that day, but also for the public safety community.
It’s a significant marker because out of all the recommendations put forth in the 9/11 Commission Report, the creation of a nationwide public safety broadband network is one of the last to be acted on. As a former police officer and assistant chief with the LAPD, I find this disheartening. Despite extensive debate over the past decade and the founding of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, police officers, firefighters and other emergency personnel still largely face crises unable to effectively connect with each other on an interoperable level.
The good news is that Congress has taken a small, but significant, step toward fulfilling this 9/11 Commission recommendation.
In early June, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved S. 911, a bipartisan bill that aims to create a nationwide high-speed wireless network for first responders. Introduced by committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, S. 911 was approved 21-4 in committee and now moves to the full Senate floor for a vote. The bill would designate 10 megahertz of high-quality spectrum (the D Block) to public safety and establish the foundation for a nationwide public safety broadband network.
Vice President Joe Biden has publicly stated that the Obama administration supports the building of a fully interoperable nationwide network as it unlocks the potential for commercial devices and infrastructure to be used for public safety. A recent press release issued by his office reiterates this point, saying, “Almost ten years after 9/11, our system of public safety communications remains outdated, both from a performance and cost-effectiveness standpoint.”
Sen. Rockefeller has made it clear that he would like his bill to pass before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but S. 911 faces an uphill battle in Congress. There’s been much discussion over the details of the bill, such as allocation versus auction of the spectrum. Allocation, which is a central part of Rockefeller’s bill, would let the FCC compensate broadcasters for giving up spectrum. The spectrum would then be auctioned to wireless companies and the monies received from those auctions would finance the building and operation of a public safety network. On the other hand, the auction idea allows the FCC to auction spectrum to a private entity that would build a network and let public safety agencies use it when they need to.
This isn’t an “either, or” issue. Public safety agencies can work with the private sector. For example, each city could set up a contract or understanding so that the private sector can use the system unless there’s an emergency. At that point, the public sector would take over. This type of public-private partnership would be beneficial for everyone.
It’s time for Congress to work together toward a solution and stand behind one of the last remaining recommendations from the 9/11 Commission Report. We need a nationwide interoperable public safety network now. Law enforcement, firefighters, other public safety officers and the American public have waited far too long.