This article originally appeared in PolicyMic on 4 September 2011.
Ten years ago, the non-partisan 9/11 Commission, citing difficulties of essential emergency services in communication, recommended that a portion of the communications spectrum be set aside for the exclusive use of public safety services. The problem came up again more recently during Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. To save lives, the so-called “D Block” needs to be dedicated to first responders so they can communicate effectively during emergencies.
Co-chair of the 9/11 Commission Lee Hamilton recently noted, “the radio spectrum is very valuable property.” The current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plan is to auction off the D Block to wireless providers and use the estimated $4 billion in proceeds to improve the existing broadband slice next to the D Block already used by public safety services. In turn, the FCC plan will require wireless providers to give priority to these services on the D Block during emergencies. But, many public safety officials oppose this plan.
The current spectrum allocation is enough for daily operations, but not enough during serious emergencies where life and death is on the line. They cite the network overload often experienced during major events that prevent emergency services from connecting as people try to communicate with family, friends, and news networks. Public safety services want to control their communications themselves. Wireless providers are divided too, with some supporting the FCC proposal and others supporting the safety services.
Much of the debate in Congress is centered around costs. The FCC claims its plan would cost only half as much as creating a separate network as public services want. Public services claim the extra cost of the standalone network would be worth it for the required dependability, and the cost could be offset by leasing access to private providers when it isn’t in use.
Dependable and controllable communication devices are a necessary part in taking care of emergencies. 9/11 and other disasters since have shown the continued need for a standalone network. Our first responders shouldn’t have to ask private providers for network access. Private providers can lease use of the band when the extra capacity isn’t needed under normal conditions. After all, it is a matter of safety and national security.