Feds promise states $1 billion

Money could start to flow to localities for interoperable communications

Federal Register notice about grant funding availability

The Commerce and Homeland Security departments are accepting grant applications from states to create interoperable emergency communications. Department officials said they would make nearly $1 billion available to state and local governments.

But some lawmakers say that’s not enough. They want to add $100 million to help state and local governments improve their emergency communications networks. Congressional leaders would use a measure in the fiscal 2008 Homeland Security Appropriations bill to provide the additional money.

“Our first responders and emergency services personnel often lack the equipment that allows for communication between multiple fire, police and rescue departments,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, in a statement.

Collins said the amendment would “help quicken and improve the response of America’s emergency personnel.” She and the committee’s chairman, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), proposed the amendment.

The federal government would distribute the money for efforts that address natural and man-made disasters. States would be eligible for the grants only after DHS’ Office of Emergency Communications approved their statewide interoperability plans.

The House version of the DHS spending bill does not include a similar provision. The bills will now go to a conference committee to settle the differences.

Bethann Pepoli, Massachusetts’ acting chief information officer, said the primary obstacles to statewide interoperability are training and making other branches of state government aware of the project.

“It hasn’t been technology but getting people organized,” she said. “It just takes time.” She added that she welcomes the grant funding but is uncertain whether the money will be enough to fully implement the project. Massachusetts would receive about $21.1 million in grant funding.

Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will manage the nationwide effort, which it announced July 18. DHS will administer the grant funding.

“This is a huge project, and every state will get funds,” said Anne Petera, DHS’ assistant secretary for intergovernmental programs. She added that it is a one-time grant program to encourage states to invest in voice, video and data communications.

DHS will use a two-part process to distribute funds for interoperable communications. Each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico will receive a minimum of $3 million. Territories will get a minimum of $500,000 each to spend on interoperable communications.

DHS will allocate the remaining funds — more than 80 percent — to states and territories using a formula similar to the Homeland Security Grant Program’s risk formula. That formula considers threat, vulnerability and consequence factors.

Applications are due Aug. 18, and Commerce and DHS will make the awards by Sept. 30.

Petera said DHS is encouraging states to use innovative technologies, including wireless communications in the 700 MHz band. The Federal Communications Commission plans to auction that wireless spectrum to industry, and the government will use the proceeds to pay for the interoperable emergency communications program.

Lieberman criticized the government’s use of the auction. He said funds from the sale of wireless spectrum should not replace traditional grant assistance to the states.

Jason Miller contributed to this story.
FCC rules on wireless spectrumThe Federal Communications Commission has handed a partial victory to vendors by ensuring their access to a 700 MHz radio frequency band that the government plans to auction to cell phone service providers.

Some analysts see that wireless band as offering the last opportunity for new players to enter the cell phone market. It also is the frequency the Homeland Security Department wants state and local first responders to use for emergency communications.

A July 31 FCC ruling reserves a portion of the 700 MHz wireless band for use by public safety agencies for broadband communications. It reserves another portion of the spectrum for a use the FCC has designated as a public safety/private partnership.

Under the ruling, the commercial licensee who wins that portion of the auction will build a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for public safety. Public safety agencies would have priority access to that portion of the spectrum during emergencies. 

— Patrick Marshall

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