Long-awaited legislation that would set up a nationwide communications network for public safety workers in the 700 MHz band hit the Senate floor yesterday after passing the Senate Commerce Committee with strong bipartisan support on a 21-4 vote.
Lawmakers are under pressure to get the legislation passed ahead of Sept. 11, which marks the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when rescue efforts were hampered after first responders ran into problems communicating with each other because of inadequate networks.
The Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act, sponsored by Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), establishes guidelines to deploy a nationwide, interoperable mobile broadband network for public safety.
"Today's vote and the strong endorsement of the public safety network get us closer to our goal – making things safer for Americans and first responders," said Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
The bill still has to pass a vote in both the House and Senate before it can be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
Under the proposed legislation, the FCC will allocate 10 MHz of D-block spectrum for use by first responders and allow public safety officials to lease capacity on commercial mobile broadband networks. The bill mandates the public safety network interoperate with other LTE networks in the 700 MHz band.
The bill also gives the FCC the authority to conduct incentive auctions, allowing companies to voluntarily give up their spectrum in exchange for a portion of the proceedings from the auction. The National Association of Broadcasters has repeatedly voiced concerns about incentive auctions, which would allow television broadcasters to relinquish their unused airwaves.
"We greatly appreciate the focus the bill places on authorizing incentive auctions and making additional spectrum available for commercial wireless providers," CTIA President and CEO Steven Largent said. CTIA has been pushing lawmakers to pass legislation on incentive auctions in an effort to free up additional spectrum for mobile broadband services.
Funds from the incentive auctions will be used to construct the public safety network. Surplus revenue from spectrum auctions, which the Senate Commerce Committee estimates to be more than $10 billion, will be directed to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction.
Public safety advocates and major players in the wireless industry responded enthusiastically to the introduction of the bill.
Public Safety Alliance (PSA) spokesman Deputy Chief Charles Dowd, commander of the communications division of the City of New York Police Department, called the bill a "massive step."
"We truly appreciate that it was done with integrity, with substance and passed by a wide margin on a bipartisan basis," Dowd said.
"AT&T has long supported the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act and its goals of adequately addressing the spectrum crisis our industry is facing, while at the same time ensuring that our nation's first responders receive the critical resources they need to communicate during emergencies," AT&T federal relations executive Tim McKone said.
Cable was all for it. NCTA President and CEO Michael Powell released the following statement: "We applaud chairman Rockefeller, ranking member Hutchison and members of the Senate Commerce Committee for advancing a comprehensive approach to spectrum policy that encourages greater spectrum efficiency, meets the broadband needs of public safety personnel and preserves Commission flexibility with respect to auction design. We especially appreciate the committee's effort to craft a fair framework for reclaiming broadcast spectrum through incentive auctions that will cover costs incurred by cable operators due to channel sharing or repacking and will not expand or extend current carriage obligations. We look forward to working with the committee and with Congress as this important legislation is considered in the Senate."
ACA President and CEO Matthew Polka echoed those comments: "ACA commends chairman Rockefeller and ranking member Hutchison on their comprehensive approach that at once promotes spectrum efficiency, safeguards the interests of the public safety community and minimizes the impact of these policies on other parties, like smaller cable operators. Inclusion of incentive auctions designed by the Federal Communications Commission is another positive feature, especially because it will provide funding to compensate cable operators for all costs associated with carrying TV stations that share spectrum or are repacked. The ACA is also pleased the Senate bill will not expand TV station must-carry rights on cable systems beyond what's provided in current law."