D Block JOBS Act: Careful What You Wish For
Wednesday, December 07, 2011 | Comments
 
 
I wasn’t crazy about my boss at one of my first jobs out of college. When my company was acquired by a bigger company, I was thrilled because the new firm replaced the management team, and my boss was out. However, after a month or two working for my new editor, I was wishing with all my might that my first boss was still around.
 
My new editor was much worse than the first, and I quickly realized it was the beginning of the end of my employment at the company. The whole experience taught me the true meaning of the quote, “Be careful what you wish for. It might come true.”
 
Some public-safety communications officials understand this sentiment with the passage of the Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum (JOBS) Act of 2011 by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on communications and technology last week. Although the bill gives public safety the 700 MHz D block broadband spectrum, it will eventually require public safety to transfer its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum to commercial use.
 
So what’s more important — the D block or 700 MHz narrowband spectrum? State and regional 700/800 MHz system managers think 700 MHz narrowband spectrum trumps broadband spectrum, at least in the near term. Several states and regions, such as Virginia, Maryland and the Phoenix and Houston areas, are spending millions of dollars building out 700 MHz networks. Under the bill, their 700 MHz narrowband spectrum will eventually go away. What does that mean for their networks? They will have broadband spectrum, but will they have enough money and time to build out effective mission-critical broadband networks before the narrowband giveback?
 
“The House insertion of the 700 MHz giveback provision will require these states [that are deploying 700 MHz narrowband systems] to abandon this newest technology for the promise of next-generation broadband communications,” said Ray Lehr, interoperability director for the state of Maryland. “That isn’t a well thought-out transition plan. Instead of Congress dictating to the states what spectrum they should return based on a last-minute decision by a few House staff members, they should work with public safety and the states to develop a more comprehensive plan that returns spectrum used for older, end-of-lifecycle systems that will need to be updated anyway. The House plan is just not an economical use of either our limited spectrum or finances.”
 
Tom Sorley, deputy director of radio communications services for the city of Houston, is also concerned. "We are mid-way through implementing a more than $125 million voice system that is almost entirely dependent on the narrowband 700 MHz spectrum," Sorley said. "This puts our future and continued operation of this new system at risk. While broadband may prove to be the future of voice, at this moment in time, there is no standard, no devices, etc. Will five years be long enough to ensure that equipment is developed and tested sufficiently for public-safety use? Even if that does happen, it took us 10 years to get this system replacement planned, funded and procured. It will take an additional five years to get it built."
 
Granted, the language of the bill is somewhat vague in terms of timing. Specifically, public safety would lose its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum five years after public safety voice over broadband standards are in place. No one knows when that will be. Previous legislation that reallocated the D block to public safety had provisions for analyzing the feasibility of public safety giving back narrowband UHF and 700 MHz spectrum. Those bills never made it out of committee.
 
The JOBS Act seems to have Republican momentum, but it’s unknown whether the full House will pass the bill in its current form and whether it can be reconciled with the Senate’s S.911 bill that also reallocates the D block to public safety. That bill is awaiting a full vote by the Senate, but Communications Daily reported that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that the Senate would not vote this year on the Spectrum Act (S.911), introduced by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller.
 
A lot of unknowns remain that only Congress can shed light on. Let’s hope lawmakers get it right and, especially in this holiday season, we’re all happy for what we wished for.
 
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