Subcommittee Hearing Witnesses Wrangle Over D Block
Wednesday, June 23, 2010 | Comments
House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman. Photo courtesy the Committee on Energy and Commerce
 
 
On June 17 the house subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet held a hearing to discuss draft legislation to build and maintain a national interoperable public-safety broadband network. While the eight witnesses agreed on a majority of the bill’s proposals, such as building a network of networks, strong disagreement stemmed over the D block.
 
In the draft legislation and the FCC’s national broadband plan, the D block is to be auctioned, with the proceeds generated used to fund building a nationwide interoperable public-safety network. If the legislation passes, public safety would have its already allotted 10 megahertz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum along with priority access and roaming rights on commercial networks.
 
The bill outlines a funding plan for the estimated $5.5 billion project with proceeds from the auction used to establish a Construction Fund, and any proceeds exceeding the $5.5 billion to be deposited in a Maintenance and Operation fund. “This new discussion draft is the best opportunity we have [to build a nationwide interoperable public-safety network],” said Rep. Jane Harman. “Everyone loses if we fail.”
 
Vocal opposition of the plan was led by the Public Safety Alliance (PSA). PSA officials said that the 10 megahertz of spectrum isn’t enough for first responders and are asking that the D block be reallocated to public safety, so the nationwide network can be built with 20 megahertz of spectrum.
 
The eight witnesses who testified before the committee were Jamie Barnett Jr., chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB); Charles F. Dowd, deputy chief, New York City Police Department, Communications Division; Jonathan Moore, director, fire and EMS operations and GIS services, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF); Steve Zipperstein, general counsel, Verizon Wireless; Joseph Hanley, vice president, technology, planning and services, Telephone and Data Systems (TDS); Brian Fontes, CEO, National Emergency Number Association (NENA); Dale Hatfield, adjunct professor, interdisciplinary telecommunications program, University of Colorado at Boulder; and Coleman D. Bazelon, principal, The Brattle Group.
 
Dowd and Zipperstein said the D block should be reallocated, while the remaining witnesses said they support the auction. Fontes said NENA would encourage any action that includes building a nationwide public-safety broadband network and specified funding for that network.
 
House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman voiced his support of the bill, calling it a multimillion-dollar investment. A single focus on the D block undercuts what everyone wants to achieve — a nationwide interoperable network, Waxman said. “Spectrum without a viable plan will leave you with a nation of haves and have nots.”
 
Supporters said that 10 megahertz of spectrum would be enough for both day-to-day operation and emergency needs for first responders. Barnett said the 10 megahertz of dedicated spectrum will actually perform similar to 160 megahertz on current spectrum, citing an FCC white paper.
 
Barnett disagreed with PSA’s claim that 20 megahertz of spectrum would be adequate for public safety in times of national disasters, and said that no one really knows how much spectrum would be sufficient. With the option to roam, public safety would have access to more spectrum than if they were limited to the 20 megahertz network they are seeking. “An additional 10 megahertz might not be enough in a disaster, which is why with roaming, public safety can have 40 – 60 megahertz spectrum available when needed,” he said.
 
A condition would be placed on the D block spectrum requiring first responders to have priority access and roaming. Other 700 MHz spectrum could also be used for roaming, giving public-safety agencies a choice of carriers, Barnett said.
 
The dynamic between public-safety networks and commercial carrier networks was examined during the hearing. The bill makes public safety reliant on commercial networks when they need communications most, Zipperstein said.
 
The most persistent issue discussed during the hearing was top-priority roaming, which puts users at the head of the line, but doesn’t guarantee that they get on the system, Dowd said. Pre-emption would kick commercial users off a network in times of need, but carriers are unwilling to provide pre-emption, Dowd said.
 
Being placed at the “top of the waiting list” isn’t good enough, and in emergency situations — when spectrum is needed most — it’s needed immediately, according to PSA representatives during a teleconference Thursday afternoon following the hearing.
 
But per megahertz, commercial networks cover vastly more users than public-safety networks, Barnett said. There are about 25 times the number of commercial users than public-safety users per megahertz on current networks, he said.
 
Dowd asked what relevance Barnett’s estimate has to public safety, saying the two have different network standards. Commercial networks are built to maximize spectrum, which is secondary for public-safety networks. The two shouldn’t be compared and, “commercial networks will fail before our [networks],” Dowd said.
 
Several unanswered questions about commercial networks remain, including who would be liable if a commercial carrier was unable to provide access to a first responder when they needed it, and what guarantee a public-safety agency would be given that carriers would spend the money to assure networks are at public-safety level standards, which is cost prohibitive to carriers, Dowd said.
 
Repeatedly, representatives and witnesses who supported the bill called attention to the short- and long-term funding sources outlined in it. A main criticism against reallocation of the D block is the lack of specific funding mechanisms. When discussing reallocating the D block option, Moore said that while the idea may be well intended, it’s unrealistic because it provides no funding proposals for building or maintaining the network. “Affordability is key,” he said.
 
In a teleconference among PSA officials after the hearing, PSA officials said they recognize funding for the network still needs to be addressed, but said they are first focused on securing the spectrum to “lay the correct foundation.” Public-safety officials said substantial revenue is expected from other spectrum available for auction, even if the D block isn’t included in the auction, which represents 2 percent of the spectrum available. The auction will include the advanced wireless services-3 (AWS-3) band. “We should see the D block as an investment for the future,” Zipperstein said. However, failure to auction the D block will result in increased building and operational costs by billions of dollars, Barnett said. “No one has come forward with a cost plan except the FCC.”
 
The amount of revenue that can be raised from an auction also is uncertain, with Hanley, Zipperstein and Bazelon in agreement that the more restrictions placed on the spectrum, the less carriers will be willing to bid. “Any conditions would be harmful,” Zipperstein said, citing the 2007 failed auction of the D block as an example.
 
The D block spectrum is uniquely desirable because it would work “simply and elegantly” with the 10 megahertz of spectrum public safety already has, Dowd said. If adding sites were the solution, Dowd said public safety wouldn’t care about the D block.
 
During Dowd’s testimony, he called attention to New York white papers that were submitted to the FCC as research into why 10 megahertz of spectrum wouldn’t be enough for the nationwide network. Dowd voiced his support for Rep. Pete King’s bill to reallocate the D block. Rep. Anthony Weiner voiced his support for the King bill as well.
 
Public-safety officials fear that if the 10 megahertz isn’t enough and the D block is auctioned, “once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” said Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald, vice president, National Sheriffs Association (NSA), during the teleconference. Public safety would then have to find other spectrum, piecing bands together, similar to how narrowband public-safety networks are set up. “We’re never going to create a national architecture by slices,” said Chief Jeff Johnson, president, International Association of Fire Chief (IAFC). “Adequate, continuous spectrum must be given to us.”
 
When asked if the PSA would reconsider a fallback position of support if the House moves forward with the draft legislation as is, PSA officials stressed that their primary concern is getting the 20 megahertz of spectrum. “At the end of the day, it’s public safety, first and foremost,” officials said.
 
The record of the hearing will be left open for two weeks to include any additional questions from the committee.
 
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