Congress, FCC draw up spectrum battle plan

FCC 700 MHz Public Safety Spectrum site

Lawmakers may finally set a deadline for opening the critical wireless spectrum to emergency responders. But federal officials might also have to spend millions of dollars to get commercial companies to give up the spectrum, the Federal Communications Commission chairman said earlier this month.

Officials at all levels of government blame shortcomings in wireless communications and interoperability as major problems for public safety officials and first responders. Without adequate voice and data capabilities, public safety officials are often disorganized in their responses to emergencies. Multiple studies cite the lack of adequate communications for compounding the chaos following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In recent months, FCC officials have taken steps to move commercial cellular providers, such as Nextel Communications Inc., out of the 800 MHz and 4.9 GHz bands to free those wireless frequencies and eliminate interference from adjacent signals.

But public safety officials are concerned about the slow pace at which FCC officials are freeing the 700 MHz spectrum, which can be used for voice, data and broadband communications. Public safety officials prefer that spectrum because its lower frequencies can penetrate buildings and reach into tunnels, such as subway systems.

FCC officials set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2006, for commercial broadcasters to move out of the 700 MHz spectrum and into the digital television (DTV) spectrum. Analog-signal broadcasters occupy the spectrum between channels 60 and 69. But FCC officials cannot enforce the deadline without congressional action because of laws passed in 1996 and 1997 that allow broadcasters to delay the transition until 85 percent of consumers are using DTV, said Michael Powell, FCC chairman.

Powell testified earlier this month before members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

A Jan. 1, 2007, deadline for the transition to the DTV spectrum is now part of major legislation introduced earlier this month to implement recommendations in the 9-11 Commission's report. But a primary concern of FCC officials and others is that no matter when the transition happens, some people will not have the equipment necessary to view the new digital broadcasts, Powell said.

The only way to overcome that barrier may be for lawmakers to fund a program to buy people converters at $100 to $150 per box today, or possibly $30 to $50 later, if prices drop, Powell said.

"If Congress paid for the converters tomorrow, you could do it tomorrow," he said. "That's the trade-off. How much are we going to let the market bring consumers to the solution, or how much are we going to meet the market?"

Powell said he favored meeting the market halfway "because the public good has more value to me than whatever costs are associated with it."

Without a definite date for the transition, few public officials are willing to spend money on expensive equipment when the money could be used for something more immediate and concrete, said Stephen Devine, patrol frequency coordinator for the Missouri Highway Patrol and a member of the executive committee of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International.

Officials at "state and local governments need a firm date so they can proceed with planning, funding and construction of new radio systems, confident that the spectrum will be there when the systems are ready to be deployed," Devine said.

In the meantime, Powell said, technologies can help make the most of the limited spectrum that is available now. FCC officials are committed to helping federal, state and local officials determine how best to use those technologies, he said. They include radios that can hop from frequency to frequency.

"At the end of the day, we need to get more out of what we have," Powell said. "At the end of the day, technology offers very bold and common-sense solutions."

The spectrum squeeze

What the battle is over: 700 MHz spectrum.

Who uses the frequencies now: Commercial broadcasters, including the major TV networks, Spanish language stations and public TV stations.

Who wants the frequencies: Public safety officials and first responders.

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