Responders urge deadline for wireless shift

HERO Act

Congress must set a deadline for making a critical wireless spectrum available to public safety officials, otherwise they may need decades to build useful and interoperable systems, officials told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee this week.

"State and local governments need a firm date so they can proceed with planning, funding and construction of new radio systems, safe in the knowledge that the spectrum will be there when the systems are ready to be deployed," 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.

Members of the 9-11 Commission has also recommended a deadline.

Officials at the Federal Communications Commission set a target date of Dec. 31, 2006, to move commercial broadcast carriers out of the spectrum, which is currently used by analog-signal broadcasters between channels 60 and 69, and into the digital television (DTV) spectrum. However, 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, Powell said.

There are now two bills in Congress that would make the 2006 deadline a hard deadline: the Homeland Emergency Response Operations (HERO) Act that Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), Curt Weldon (R-Penn.) and others introduced in 2003; and the 9/11 Commission Report Act that Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and others introduced Tuesday, which includes the text of the HERO Act.

Technology can help make the most of the limited spectrum that is available, and FCC officials are committed to helping federal, state and local agencies determine how best to use that technology, said Michael Powell, the commission's chairman.

"But the big problem is how is this going to be paid for," he said.

The majority of public safety communications systems are bought and used by local governments, which also have the tightest budgets and some of the most complex budget cycles. That means a local first responder must have a detailed plan with a definite date to get funding, Powell said.

In recent months, the FCC moved commercial users, such as Nextel Communications Inc., out of the 800 MHz and 4.9 GHz bands to free wireless space for public safety users and remove interference from adjacent signals. Both areas are still awaiting additional action, but public safety officials are particularly concerned about the slow pace of the transition in the 700 MHz spectrum, which handle voice, data and broadband. Lower frequencies can better penetrate buildings or reach into tunnels, such as subway systems.

District of Columbia officials are preparing to demonstrate their 700 MHz wireless broadband network to Congress later this month. The network is a pilot for public safety agencies nationwide. Such networks will not be possible unless Congress acts to set a hard date for moving television broadcasts out of that spectrum, said Robert LeGrande, deputy chief technology officer for Washington, D.C.

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