GAO Recommends Congress Allow Public Safety Continued Access to T-Band Spectrum
Monday, June 24, 2019 | Comments

A June 21 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommends Congress pass a law allowing public-safety users to continue using the T-band spectrum for emergency communications.

Public-safety officials in 11 metropolitan areas rely on radio systems that use the portion of spectrum known as the T-band for mission-critical voice communications. GAO interviewed selected stakeholders, including first responders, and officials in three of four areas selected as case studies, anticipate significant challenges in relocating public-safety communications from the T-band.

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) also directed the FCC to auction the UHF T-band spectrum at 470 – 512 MHz by 2021. The law requires the FCC to begin a T-band spectrum auction by February 2021 and to make the proceeds available to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to develop and administer a grant program to help cover costs associated with relocating public-safety users' radio systems. Congress must pass legislation to reverse the 2012 law.

Numerous business/industrial licensees are in the T-band spectrum as well, but they are not addressed in the legislation.

Stakeholders in Boston, Los Angeles and New York said the FCC has not identified sufficient alternative spectrum. Dallas officials said they have moved off the T-band frequencies. The report said a recent FCC analysis showed that relocation options for public-safety users are limited or nonexistent. Further, the FCC calculated costs for relocating public-safety users from the T-band to be $5 billion to $6 billion. Selected stakeholders said relocating their communication systems would require new towers, radios and other infrastructure.

FCC officials acknowledged challenges the auction and relocation requirements present. FCC officials said that public-safety entities were licensed to operate on the T-band in large metropolitan areas because other public-safety spectrum was already heavily used. In March, FCC briefed Congress on the auction's challenges and concluded that all T-band auction scenarios would fail. Nonetheless, FCC officials said the agency will conduct the auction unless the law is amended.

Stakeholders in two metropolitan areas said the auction could result in substantial harmful effects on their ability to maintain continuous and effective communications during an emergency.

Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., chairman of the House subcommittee on emergency preparedness, response and recovery committee on homeland security, and Rep. Peter T. King, ranking member of the committee, asked GAO to review issues related to the required T-band auction.

The report examines, among other things, the challenges selected first responders and local governments anticipate facing in relocating public-safety communications from the T-band and the actions FCC has taken both to help facilitate the required T-and relocation and to address identified challenges. GAO reviewed FCC's March 2019 congressional briefing and analysis on T-band spectrum and conducted case studies in four cities selected based on the number of public-safety licenses in each area, among other things. GAO reviewed relevant statutes and regulations, FCC documents, and T-band studies conducted by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC). GAO interviewed FCC officials and other stakeholders, including first responders in case study cities.

The 30-page report recommends that Congress consider legislation allowing public-safety users continued use of the T-band spectrum.

“Since the passage of legislation requiring the relocation of public-safety users from, and auction of, the T-band radio spectrum, the potential consequences of these actions have become far more apparent,” the report said. “If FCC conducts such an auction, it is unclear that all public-safety users in the affected areas will be able to relocate. If alternative spectrum is not available, public safety would be jeopardized in some of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Even if alternate available spectrum can be found, public-safety users are likely to bear significant costs associated with relocating and reestablishing interoperability. These costs could go well beyond the revenue produced by such an auction.”

GAO plans to send copies of the report to the appropriate congressional committees, the secretaries of Commerce and Homeland Security, and the chairman of FCC. The full report and a summary are here.

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