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Friday, September 17, 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. Also critical are (1) building the network to use this spectrum and (2) developing and deploying the radios to the new standards required for mobile broadband. Beyond recognition of these common needs and goals, opinions diverge on such issues as how much spectrum should be made available for public safety broadband communications, how communications networks should be configured, who should own them, who should build them, who should operate them, who should be allowed to use them, and how they might be paid for.

Three bills that would increase the amount of radio frequency spectrum assigned for public safety use have been introduced. The bills would require that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) transfer a spectrum license intended for commercial use, known as the D Block, to the license-holder for adjacent frequencies already assigned to public safety, known as the Public Safety Broadband License. The Broadband for First Responders Act of 2010 (H.R. 5081, Representative King) deals primarily with reassignment of the D Block. Two Senate bills contain similar provisions for spectrum assignment and would add a number of new provisions, including using the proceeds of future spectrum auctions to fund the needed network (S. 3625, Senator Lieberman and S. 3756, Senator Rockefeller). The development of public safety radios for broadband would be expedited by companion bills H.R. 5907 (Representative Harman) and S. 3731 (Senator Warner). Public safety operations would benefit from the radio-development initiative regardless of the eventual assignment of the D Block. Congress may consider additional legislation or oversight to meet desired levels of emergency communications performance.

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. Many have recommended that, for the proposed broadband network projects 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, some analysts point to the primacy of putting in place a well-grounded but flexible governance structure. The debate on spectrum assignment has in recent months dominated the attention of Congress and other policy makers. Meanwhile, several states and urban areas including the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, and the State of Mississippi have submitted detailed plans for building the nation’s first broadband networks that might serve as a practical framework for evaluating policy options. These plans, developed according to FCC requirements, share many common features. Notable from a policy point of view are several recommendations that provide a common theme in these early submissions. These may be summarized as: (1) sufficient funding is essential; (2) networks that either cover an area designated as eligible for Urban Area Security Initiative programs, or cover a regional area—that is, large and/or densely populated areas—are more efficient to build, operate, and govern; (3) several critical technologies and standards, such as for radios, must be developed before the networks can be fully effective; (4) some form of governing sur-structure must be in place to assure uniformity of core operations while allowing for local customization of public safety applications; and (5) collaboration with commercial partners is important for mustering all the skills and knowledge resources needed for developing the leading-edge broadband networks that are the goals of the submitted plans.

Date of Report: September 1, 2010
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: R40859
Price: $29.95

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