Obama Sides With Cities in FCC Fight

Local leaders have a new ally in their fight for a larger chunk of the broadband network.
by | January 31, 2011
 

President Obama has thrown his support behind a plan that would allocate a valuable piece of the broadcast spectrum for public safety use, putting him at odds with the Federal Communications Commission, which had previously announced plans to auction it to commercial bidders.

A White House official tells Governing that the Obama administration will soon reveal plans to develop an enhanced public safety broadband network, and a key part of the initiative will be making the broadcast spectrum's "D Block" available to public safety workers.

Emergency workers and mayors have argued against the FCC's auction plan, and they've spent nearly a year trying to get the government to change course. Until now, they've been the underdogs in the fight. But with the support of the president, and the introduction Tuesday of legislation by Sen. Jay Rockefeller to block the auction, they appear to be gaining the upper hand.

The situation developed when the country's television broadcasters switched from analog to digital signals in 2009. Suddenly, a piece of the broadcast spectrum that had been occupied for years was available for something new. Emergency workers were especially excited, since the newly available D Block is adjacent in the broadcast spectrum to their existing public safety bands. Their hope was that they'd have access to the new space and have the ability to transmit data-heavy information such as blueprints, GIS maps and live video during an emergency.

The space would also enhance interoperability between agencies, which currently use a hodgepodge of different communications systems. In New York, for example, the city police, transit police and port authority police can't radio each other without carrying each others' equipment - a cumbersome and expensive fix. Other technical reasons make the D Block attractive. It's well-suited for wireless broadband, and it has the ability to penetrate buildings. "No spectrum is absolutely perfect, but this is as close to ideal as you're going to get," Charles Dowd, deputy chief of the New York Police Department, told Governing.

But the FCC had other ideas. Last year it published a plan to auction the D Block to commercial bidders, which could raise more than $3 billion. Supporters of that plan say it's the most fiscally responsible thing to do. Proceeds of the auction could help enhance the public safety network within its existing space, and in case of an emergency, the emergency workers would have priority access to commercial networks if they needed it. But emergency workers aren't convinced they really would get that priority access and say it's too dangerous to wait for a disaster to find out.

Arlene Mulder, mayor of Arlington Heights, Ill., says the fight for the D Block is especially important because, once it's auctioned off, it would be nearly impossible for public safety workers to get it back. "This is a high priority for mayors across the U.S.," Mulder told Governing. "It's a one-time opportunity."

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