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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Public Safety Communications and Spectrum Resources: Policy Issues for Congress

Linda K. Moore
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

Effective emergency response is dependent on wireless communications. To minimize communications failures during and after a crisis requires ongoing improvements in emergency communications capacity and capability. The availability of radio frequency spectrum is considered essential to developing a modern, interoperable communications network for public safety. Equally critical is building the radio network to use this spectrum. Opinions diverge, however, on such issues as how much spectrum should be made available for the network, who should own it, who should build it, who should operate it, who should be allowed to use it, and how it might be paid for. 

To resolve the debate and move the planning process forward, Congress may decide to pursue oversight or change existing law. Actions proposed to Congress include (1) authorizing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reassign spectrum and (2) changing requirements for the use of spectrum auction proceeds. In particular, legislation in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-171) might be modified. This law mandated the termination of analog television broadcasting and the release of those channels for other uses, including public safety. 

Congress may consider additional legislation to meet desired levels of emergency communications performance. A bill that would increase the amount of radio frequency spectrum assigned for public safety has been introduced (H.R. 5081, Representative King). A Senate bill contains similar provisions for spectrum assignment and would add a number of new provisions, including funding (S. 3625, Senator Lieberman). Both bills would require the FCC to transfer a spectrum license intended for commercial use, the D Block, to the license-holder for adjacent frequencies already assigned to public safety, known as the Public Safety Broadband License. Other bills and oversight activities are likely. 

Congress has before it an opportunity to bring public safety communications into the 21st century by assuring that a nationwide, interoperable communications network is put in place. The tools at its disposal include homeland security policy, spectrum policy, funding programs, and leadership. 

Among the actions that Congress might take, those dealing with governance and funding are often cited by public safety officials and others as the areas most in need of its consideration. They have recommended that, for the proposed network project to go forward on a sustainable footing, funding sources need to be identified for investment and operating expenses over the long term. To ensure the resources are wisely used, many analysts point to the primacy of putting in place a well-grounded but flexible governance structure. They argue that good governance is essential to complete development of needed technologies and standards, and to plan for and execute their deployment. In its National Broadband Plan, the FCC proposed that it assume the needed leadership role and has since taken a number of steps to realize the goals it has set for itself. 

Since September 11, 2001, Congress has passed several laws that empowered the Department of Homeland Security to recognize and respond to technological developments in wireless and Internet protocol (IP) communications, and to apply this knowledge to guiding the development of a nationwide, interoperable network for public safety. By choosing to focus on interim solutions, the Department might appear to have passed on the opportunity to provide the needed leadership and planning to move public safety communications toward a next-generation emergency communications network. 

Date of Report: June 23, 2010
Number of Pages: 27
Order Number: R40859
Price: $29.95

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