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House Republicans Express Skepticism About D-Block, Funding Requests

May 26, 2011 | National News

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s communications and technology subcommittee expressed today skepticism with proposals to reallocate the 700 megahertz band D block to public safety and provide billions of dollars to fund the construction of a nationwide public safety broadband network.

One after another, the lawmakers said that public safety has already been allocated nearly 100 megahertz of spectrum for their exclusive use, including 24 MHz in the 700 MHz band, and they questioned whether they need more - especially when current frequencies aren’t fully utilized. They also said that more than $13 billion has been allocated for public safety communications in the past decade and they wondered whether more would be well-spent. A number of the members also stressed the importance of governance.

However, many of the lawmakers did not seem to understand how the spectrum was currently being used - including that 12 MHz of the 24 MHz allocated in the 700 MHz band was for voice communications and that those capabilities currently aren’t available in a mission-critical way over 4G LTE (long term evolution) networks. Some public safety leaders expressed frustration after the hearing by the apparent confusion of lawmakers.

For their part, Democrats on the panel expressed support for legislation that Sens. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D., W.Va.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas), the respective chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, hope to mark up the week of June 6.

The draft Senate measure would reallocate the D block to public safety, authorize the FCC to hold incentive auctions, and reserve $12 billion to pay for the deployment of a nationwide public safety network. It would also establish a nonprofit corporation to hold the license for the public safety spectrum and oversee the construction and operation of the network.

The Public Safety Broadband Corporation would have a board of directors that includes at least three state and local representatives and three public safety representatives. The federal members would be the Commerce and Homeland Security secretaries, the U.S. attorney general, and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Industry representatives would also be expected to be on the board. The senators also expect $10 billion of auction proceeds to go to deficit reduction.

“The successful creation and management of an interoperable public safety network will need to focus on four elements: spectrum, equipment, governance, and funding,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R, Ore.), the subcommittee’s chairman. “We have provided public safety with nearly 100 MHz of spectrum for their exclusive use. Given that fact, it is strange to me that the debate on public safety communications has been so focused on the 700 MHz D block. Public safety has more spectrum than the vast majority of wireless providers, who, as it is oft cited, provide 16-year-old customers with more capabilities than those available to our First Responders. As recently as our 2005 DTV legislation, Congress cleared 24 MHz of spectrum for an interoperable public safety network. Six years later, that spectrum lays woefully underused. . . . Clearly something in our approach is not working. Could we be better using that 24 MHz for the broadband network public safety needs?”

The congressman, who also cited the $13 billion funding figure, added that governance “may indeed be the most difficult and the most critical” piece of the puzzle. “I continue to support the idea of a public/private partnership between commercial wireless providers and public safety to address First Responders’ needs,” he said. “Public safety radio networks have traditionally been characterized by local control of nearly all elements of the network, from choosing the equipment vendors to oversight of the standards evolution. If our goal is to create a nationwide, interoperable network, this kind of local communications fiefdom cannot continue to dominate the public safety communications debate. We need to find the right balance between local input and national coordination.”

During one question later in the hearing, Mr. Walden asked whether the 12 MHz used for voice applications could be enough spectrum to meet public safety’s broadband needs.

Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), chairman of the full committee also cited the 24 MHz reallocated to public safety in the 700 MHz band, as well as the $13 billion spent on radio equipment since 2001. “The question is, what will bring us closer to making interoperable voice and broadband communications a reality?” he asked. “Some say we should reallocate the D block. But current law requires that spectrum to be auctioned and doing otherwise would create a roughly $3 billion dollar hole in the budget that we cannot afford.”

“I don’t see that there’s any real excuse for not having an interoperable network,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas). “And I’m not sure it’s a spectrum issue. . . . It may be a lack of funding at the local level.”

Rep. Lee Terry (R., Neb.), expressed frustration with the way public safety has used the spectrum and funding it has been allocated. “Now we’re being told that to solve this problem, we need more money, more spectrum, and new governance,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t think any of that solves the problem. . . . If you aren’t using the 24 MHz properly or efficiently, why would we give you 10 [MHz] more. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Mr. Terry also said the bill being pushed by Sens. Rockefeller and Hutchison has flaws. “The Senate bill, I don’t think, really attacks or goes to the problem,” he said. He added that the House panel was “being diligent” in trying to figure out how to proceed. Several other committee members made similar comments about the panel taking its time - even as proponents of D-block reallocation are hoping a bill will pass Congress and be signed by President Obama by Sept. 11.

But Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D., Calif.), the ranking member of the full committee, said the discussion draft circulated by Sens. Rockefeller and Hutchison “is worthy of our careful consideration. Their bipartisan draft bill goes a long way towards addressing concerns about governance, accountability, interoperability, and how we pay for the public safety network.”

Mr. Waxman, who circulated draft legislation last year that would have required the FCC to reauction the D block, noted that arguments have been made both for reallocating the D block and reauctioning the spectrum. “Both approaches could work, but recent developments appear to favor reallocation,” he said. “The reallocation approach is strongly preferred by public safety leaders and President Obama, and it has bipartisan support in the House and Senate. . . . Last month, I approached Chairman Upton and Chairman Walden and suggested that we emulate our Senate counterparts and work together on a bipartisan House bill that would provide for a nationwide public safety network and make new spectrum available through incentive auctions. I hope they will take us up on this offer. I appreciate the fact that doing this right is complex and challenging. But with the tenth anniversary of 9-11 fast approaching, we need to settle on a path forward and move quickly. There is no reason why Congress cannot act before this somber anniversary.”

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D., Calif.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said the Senate discussion draft is “a well thought-out proposal that should be given consideration within this Committee.” She also said she plans to reintroduce, with Rep. John Shimkus (R., Ill.),. the Next Generation Public Safety Devices Act, which was introduced in 2010 to spur competition and innovation in the public safety broadband equipment market through a grant program.

Jeff Johnson, chief executive officer of the Western Fire Chiefs Association who testified on behalf of the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), stressed that public safety plans to enter into public-private partnerships to build the nationwide network. But he stressed that agencies need control over their spectrum. He also said a governance entity should have representation of state and local governments, public safety, federal agencies, and industry, and he commended the governance language in the Senate draft.

In response to a question, Mr. Johnson stressed the need for both “local and regional presence,” since it will be those officials that actually operate the network on a daily basis. Asked if he saw a tension between a national governance model and state and local input, he said, “I don’t expect they’ll be tension between the two.”

Mr. Johnson told another questioner that much of the billions spent since 2001 has been spent on “core operability” of equipment “that is interoperable capable.” He also said that the FCC’s narrowbanding mandate has forced agencies to focus on replacing equipment to comply with that requirement rather than accomplish interoperability.

Several witnesses also said it could take from three to 10 years before LTE will be capable of handling mission-critical voice applications and thus the 12 MHz of 700 MHz band spectrum dedicated for narrowband applications is necessary. However, industry representatives said that while the technology is available for mission-critical voice, LTE standards have not yet been developed.

As for use of the 4.9 gigahertz band, Mr. Johnson noted that it is ideal for short-range applications rather than wide-area use. In response to questions about why public safety serves so many fewer users with its spectrum than commercial providers do with theirs, industry and public safety witnesses said that a public safety network must be more resilient than a commercial one. Comparing the two is “comparing apples and oranges,” said Paul Steinberg, chief technology officer of Motorola Solutions, Inc.

“You can’t apply the same metrics” to the two types of networks, agreed Dennis Martinez, CTO of Harris Corp.’s RF Communications Division

Mr. Steinberg said his company thinks that reallocation of the D block is the best action for a number of reasons, including those based on cost and spectrum-efficiency. He also stressed that the public safety equipment market is competitive - despite the concern by Ms. Eshoo and some others that Motorola dominates it. In response to a question, he told Ms. Eshoo he would get back to her about how much public safety radios cost. The congresswoman cited a figure that they average $5,000 apiece, but Mr. Steinberg said “it’s considerably less than that.”

Mr. Martinez stressed over and over the need for multi-sourcing of equipment and other components and “competitive business practices” in the deployment of a nationwide network. He also said there is a need for “extensive oversight” of the network by state and local officials and Congress.

Joe Hanna, president of Directions, a consulting firm, and a former public safety official suggested that the 24 MHz already allocated to public safety would be suitable to handle their day-to-day needs and that they could use commercial networks for major emergencies. He also agreed about the need for strong governance. Mr. Hanna said he was not testifying on behalf of anyone, although he in the past has worked for T-Mobile USA, Inc., which has supported a D-block reauction.

Joseph Hanley, vice president-technology, planning and services for Telephone and Data Systems, Inc., the parent of United States Cellular Corp., said his company would support either a reauction of the D block or reallocation “provided the needed safeguards are adopted.”

“Creating an interoperable public safety network requires that Congress and the FCC implement four principles: (1) sufficient funding is available to build and operate a high quality network with broad coverage; (2) public safety enters into partnerships with commercial operators that leverage the experience and both local and core network assets of those operators; (3) the network is designed, deployed and used with spectral efficiency in mind, recognizing the scarcity of this national resource; and (4) fair long-term opportunities are provided for a range of qualified commercial operators to work with public safety to build, operate, and continue to upgrade the network and those operators have an opportunity to use available capacity on the network where technically feasible,” Mr. Hanley said. “The worst course of action is continued inaction.”

Chris Imlay, general counsel of ARRL, which represents amateur radio operators, spoke out against language in D-block reallocation legislation (HR 607) introduced earlier this year by Reps. Peter T. King (R., N.Y.) and Bennie G. Thompson (D., Miss.), the respective chairman and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. The provision would require the auction of the 420-440 MHz and 450-470 MHz bands.

Rep. King asked Mr. Upton today to take up HR 607. He also noted that during a hearing today before his panel, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, reiterated the importance of reallocating the D block to public safety.

Some public safety expressed frustration after today’s hearing that lawmakers still don’t understand that the narrowband spectrum can’t be converted for broadband use for years - especially after the PSA met with a number of lawmakers after some expressed confusion at an April hearing (TRDaily, April 12).

“Some of the questions showed that they’re very misinformed,” one public safety source told TRDaily. “It is frustrating because we are educating,” another said. “We’ve explained it before. We’ll explain it again.”

Meanwhile, the PSA today issued a news release detailing what it called the “top five public safety broadband network myths.” It said they are (1) that the cost of the network will run $30 billion to $45 billion, (2) that public safety has no deployment plan, (3) that a federal bureaucracy will be needed to oversee the network, (4) that a D-block reauction is needed to assist in deficit reduction, and (5) that the Connect Public Safety Now coalition is backed by public safety.

Paul Kirby, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)