House Subcommittee Hearing Focuses on D Block Broadband Accountability (5/26/11)
Thursday, May 26, 2011 | Comments

By Michelle Zilis
The Subcommittee on Communications and Technology’s “Creating an Interoperable Public Safety Network” hearing on the D block spectrum reallocation and the creation of a nationwide, interoperable public-safety broadband network was held Wednesday, May 25. During a hearing, witnesses answered questions from lawmakers regarding accountability of money and spectrum already allocated to public safety, clarification on the current status of public-safety communications and general questions about the future goals.

Witnesses were asked to address what has happened to the money and spectrum already allocated to public safety. “We’ve spent $13 billion and given you 24 MHz of spectrum and to solve the problem we’re now being told you need more money, spectrum and governance,” said Rep. Lee Terry. “Why would we give you more?”

The already allocated money has typically been spent making systems operable or interoperable, said Jeffrey Johnson, immediate past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and current chief executive officer of the Western Fire Chiefs Associations, testifying on behalf of the Public Safety Alliance (PSA). The LMR networks have their roots in thin splices of spectrum given to public safety over time, which has created a broken model. The public-safety community would love to stop spending money connecting the splices, and instead have a vision for a nationwide network to spend the money on, he said.

“The predominant practice has been of looking backward instead of focusing on the future,” said Dennis Martinez, CTO, Harris RF Communications Division. A lot of money was unfortunately spent looking backward without a focused goal. Now public safety can learn from that experience to make sure it isn’t done again with broadband, he said.

Other federal money was spent to meet the narrowbanding mandate that required many agencies to replace communications systems. One benefit of narrowbanding will be the band space cleared that will eventually be repackaged and reauctioned, bringing in revenue, Johnson said.

With regard to the spectrum already allocated to public safety, a large portion is 4.9 GHz, which isn’t really applicable for a broadband network, said Joe Hanna, president, Directions. It does have applications if paired with the network to enhance certain aspects.

“4.9 GHz is for short distances so it’s good for backhaul, but it’s not as useful as 700 MHz,” Johnson said.

The witnesses were asked why such a large quantity of spectrum was needed, when public safety has only about 3 million users, while the Verizon Wireless’ nationwide network that serves 100 million subscribers is fine with 22 megahertz of spectrum. Martinez, Johnson and Paul Steinberg, vice president, Motorola, all agreed that there are problems with the comparison. “It’s apples to oranges,” Steinberg said.

When an incident happens the local public-safety community is likely to overwhelm a certain site, rather than sites spread out across the nation, Johnson said. So each site needs to have the required capacity because an incident could occur anywhere.

Lawmakers also asked for clarifications about cost and potential partnerships.

Rep. Anna Eshoo highlighted an FCC report that states the public-safety market is unable to capture the costs seen in the commercial-carrier market, specifically a figure that compared a handheld in the commercial market costing a couple hundred dollars versus a similar LMR product that costs $5,000. She asked for an explanation as, “it looks like we’re going to be picking up the tab.”

The goal of creating a nationwide, interoperable network hinges on products that are interchangeable as well as interoperable. The market must learn from the success seen in the commercial market that is highly competitive. Multisourcing will be the key, Martinez said.

Hanna said partnerships are paramount to the network’s success and supports a D block auction. When questioned as to why a partnership buildout would be less expensive than a stand-alone network, Hanna and Joseph Hanley, vice president, Telephone and Data Systems, agreed that the lower costs are due to leveraging existing infrastructure and money saved due to co-location of sites.

“The general discussion in the public-safety community is that if we were allocated the D block we fully intend to have commercial partners,” Johnson said. Having commercial partners is the most cost effective buildout path. “But the last thing we want is to shut down a commercial network in times of emergency. We are the output and the call from someone trapped inside their house is the input, to shut down either isn’t helpful.”

The hearing also focused on governance. The nonprofit, private entity outlined in the Rockefeller and Hutchison draft was something all the witnesses supported.

Johnson, Hanley, Hanna and Martinez all said that the governance entity must involve all stakeholders, including cabinet level positions, public safety, local and regional officials, carriers and manufacturers. Hanna and Johnson both said they would support transferring the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) license to a new entity.

And a lot of oversight would be required in order to hold the new entity accountable. “It would be a challenge and require extensive oversight from the national and state level, making sure it is competitive and open,” Martinez said.

Hanley echoed the statement, stressing that clear objectives, oversight and an audit process would be needed.

Johnson predicted a complimentary relationship between the national and state levels, without tension. The national level would set standards but allow the local and regional level to have a presence controlling the dial, he said. “It would make it stronger.”

In addition to Hanley, Steinberg, Martinez, Johnson and Hanna, Chris Imlay, general counsel, American Radio Relay League, was on the panel to urge the deletion of section 207.D of HR 607. He said if left in, it would replace a number of users who operate on the 420 – 440 and 450 – 470 MHz bands.

The subcommittee is planning its third meeting on the topic next week.

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