Technology

Emergency Workers Push for More Bandwidth

Public safety workers and the Federal Communications Commission have feuded over the future of a section of broadcast spectrum known as "D Block."
by | February 28, 2011

Fighting against first responders isn’t a popular position to be in. So it’s been interesting to watch the ongoing feud between public safety workers and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the future of a section of the broadcast spectrum known as “D Block.”

When the country’s TV broadcasters switched from analog to digital signals in 2009, a chunk of the broadcast spectrum that for years was occupied suddenly became free for a new use. Emergency workers were especially excited, because the newly available D Block section is adjacent in the broadcast spectrum to their existing public safety bands. Access to that new space could give responders 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 City, for example, the city police, transit police and port authority police can’t talk without carrying one anothers’ equipment -- a cumbersome and expensive workaround. Other technical reasons make the D Block attractive. It’s well suited for wireless broadband, and it can penetrate buildings. “No spectrum is absolutely perfect, but this is as close to ideal as you’re going to get,” says Charles Dowd, deputy chief of the New York Police Department.

But the FCC had other ideas. Last year, the group published a plan to auction the D Block to commercial bidders, which could raise more than $3 billion. (The FCC previously tried to auction off the space, but no companies met the minimum bid.) Auction proceeds could help enhance the public safety network within its existing space, the FCC says, and safety workers could be given priority access to commercial networks during an emergency. But first responders aren’t convinced they’d receive priority access, and they say it’s too dangerous to wait for a disaster to find out.

Emergency workers -- and their local government allies -- have spent the past year lobbying federal officials to block the FCC’s decision. Those efforts may be working. In January, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia introduced legislation that would give the D Block to emergency workers, and President Obama has thrown support behind the plan to block the auction. While many House Energy and Commerce Committee members support the FCC auction, backers of D Block re-allocation say there is growing support for their position in the Senate.

Local government leaders say the fight for D Block is especially important because once auctioned off to commercial companies, claiming it for public-sector responders would be virtually impossible.

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