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Monday, June 27, 2011

Funding Emergency Communications: Technology and Policy Considerations

Linda K. Moore
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

The United States has yet to find a solution that assures seamless communications among first responders and emergency personnel at the scene of a major disaster. Since September 11, 2001, when communications failures contributed to the tragedies of the day, Congress has passed several laws intended to create a nationwide emergency communications capability. The 111th Congress considered pivotal issues, such as radio frequency spectrum license allocation and funding programs for a Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN), without finding a solution that satisfied the expectations of both public safety and commercial network operators. Congressional initiatives to advance public policies for Next Generation 911 services (NG9-1-1) also remained incomplete. The 112th Congress is under renewed pressure to come to a decision about the assignment of a block of radio frequency spectrum licenses referred to as the D Block, and to provide a plan for federal support of broadband networks for emergency communications. The cost of constructing new networks (wireless and wireline) is estimated by experts to be in the tens of billions of dollars over the long term, with similarly large sums needed for maintenance and operation. Identifying money for federal support in the current climate of budget constraints provides a challenge to policy makers. The greater challenge, however, may be to assure that funds are spent effectively toward the national goals that Congress sets.

After years of debate, a majority in the public safety community has agreed to implement common technologies using Internet Protocol (IP)-enabled networks and the wireless technology known as Long Term Evolution (LTE) to build the nationwide PSBN. IP-enabled networks are also considered essential to the introduction of NG9-1-1. The adoption of the Internet Protocol for emergency communications represents a significant advance in the technologies available for response and recovery operations. IP-enabled technologies are faster and smarter, capable of analyzing and directing communications as they move through networks. Achieving the transition to a leading-edge, broadband network powered by the next generation of IP technologies requires significant changes in operations and long-standing agency traditions, major investments in infrastructure and radios, and the development of enabling technologies.

The need appears increasingly urgent for timely decisions by policy makers on new infrastructure for emergency communications and spectrum allocation for public safety radios. Commercial deployment of wireless networks using LTE standards that might also support public safety use are out-pacing the planning efforts of public safety and government officials. Additionally, a number of projects that received Broadband Technology Opportunities (BTOP) grants are moving forward to build broadband infrastructure that could, if the planning is in place, be used to link wireless networks as well as to upgrade 911 systems. Appropriations for BTOP were part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (P.L. 111-5). Failing to leverage BTOP-funded infrastructure is likely to further increase the costs of emergency communications networks, especially to rural communities.

Legislation that has been introduced in the 112
th Congress to address some of these issues includes the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act (S. 28, Rockefeller), the Broadband for Public Safety Act of 2011 (S. 1040, Lieberman), the Broadband for First Responders Act (H.R. 607, King), and the Strengthening Public-safety and Enhancing Communications Through Reform, Utilization, and Modernization (SPECTRUM) Act (S. 911, Rockefeller, as amended).

Date of Report: June 14, 2011
Number of Pages: 44
Order Number: R41842
Price: $29.95

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