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Ten Years After 9-11, Still No Public Safety Network

Fri, 09/09/2011 - 8:06am
Maisie Ramsay

It's been nearly 10 years since Sept. 11, 2001, when first responders experienced major problems communicating after planes hijacked by terrorists struck the World Trade Center.

The attacks killed thousands of people and left an indelible mark on the American people. They also highlighted significant weaknesses in the communications systems used by first responders.

Firefighters, police officers and other first responders were unable to communicate with each other because they used different spectrum bands and their devices were not interoperable. Other channels were overloaded, making it impossible to get through. It was nearly impossible to coordinate response efforts, evacuation orders and rescue operations, and first responders in the North Tower were killed after they missed orders to evacuate after the collapse of the South Tower.

The breakdown in communications prompted calls for the creation of a mobile broadband network that would be used solely by first responders, but efforts to build the network foundered in 2008 when the FCC failed to find a high enough bidder for D Block spectrum in the 700 MHz band, bandwidth that had been slated for use by both public safety and the commercial sector.

Despite a recommendation to build the network from the 9/11 Commission, lawmakers in the House and Senate have been unable to pass legislation on the issue. One decade after 9/11, first responders are still wondering whether their communications systems could withstand another attack.

Wireless Week this week spoke with Gregg Riddle, who advocates for public safety workers from his post as president of APCO International. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Wireless Week: First responders experienced major problems communicating after the World Trade Center attacks, and that prompted calls for legislation creating a dedicated mobile broadband network for first responders. With just days to go until Sept. 11, how much hope do you have that we'll see a bill hit the president's desk before the tenth anniversary of the attacks?

Gregg Riddle: At this point, public safety unfortunately doesn't believe it's possible to get a piece of legislation to the president's desk for signing. While we are solidly behind the efforts of Sen. Rockefeller and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who have crafted and passed out of committee S. 911 (a bill providing spectrum and funding for a public safety network), and everybody in the Public Safety Alliance fully support that because it provides for the allocation of the spectrum known as the D Block. It also has a method of generating $10.5 billion to $12 billion in financing to build, maintain and run the broadband network, and it also has language that supports a strong governance model for the operation of the broadband network.

But the reality is the Senate bill does not have a House companion at this point coming out of the committee of jurisdiction, which is the House Energy and Commerce Committee. So until we get something passed either in the Senate that can be pushed to the House, or the House Energy and Commerce Committee prepares legislation that matches up with Sen. 911, there just is not enough time between now and then to bring this to the president's desk.

WW: Should we expect to see a bill passed this fall?

Riddle: We are working continuously toward that end. We've already got the support in the Senate in passing S. 911 out of committee by a 21-4 bipartisan vote, and we're focusing now on the house. There is legislation in the House but it did not come out of the Energy and Commerce Committee, it came out of the Committee on Homeland Security, where Peter King and Bennie Thompson authored legislation. We still need the House Energy and Commerce Committee to step up and bring something out.

WW: There were problems with commercial wireless service after the East Coast earthquake and Hurricane Irene, which led to some rather pointed remarks about the viability of commercial wireless service for public safety use. What did you take away from that?

Riddle: It was a one-two punch in favor of public safety's long-held position that working with commercial providers is not the way we can go because of reliability. That was significantly demonstrated by both of those occurrences. The FCC was trying to get comments from Commissioner McDowell, who was not in Washington but was in Colorado at the time of the earthquake. He tried to reach his staff at the FCC and was unable to get through. He even used his wireless priority service card that government entities can utilize for priority access and was still unable to get through because the network was overloaded with everyone trying to make calls in the eastern seaboard area relative to the earthquake. It wasn't a failure of the network physically – the network failed because it was overloaded, and that is the crucial time that public safety needs access to a broadband network – during man made or natural disasters. It's a failure public safety cannot afford.

Now when we talk about Hurricane Irene, that was a different scenario. The networks failed because of the downing of most of the power grid within the scope of the hurricane's path because they don't build them to the same standards that public safety builds its radio network. Networks have to be hardened and they have to have backup power for just those types of occurrences. Within two weeks, we had two significant situations that caused commercial service to fail, and that is why public safety all along has said we cannot partner with commercial networks. We have to have our own dedicated network that's built to public safety standards. We've been using that in discussions with legislators who have before been of the opinion that we should partner with commercial carriers.

WW: How much leverage have those recent incidents given you with politicians?

Riddle: Significant leverage. They now understand in a more complete way why public safety has to have the D Block allocated so we have adequate spectrum to build out a standardized public safety network on a nationwide basis and not be reliant on commercial providers.

WW: A dedicated network seems like a no-brainer to many in the public safety community. What's been holding up legislation? Is this just typical partisan bickering at play or are other factors that have held this bill up?

Riddle: Probably the thing that's held the bill up the most is the current economic situation. With the problems we're having with debt reduction, spending is really the primary problem. The reality of spending $10.5 billion-$12 billion for this network when legislators are looking to find every dollar they can for debt reduction is giving legislators pause.

Our approach with S.911 provides adequate funding plus money for debt reduction through the auctioning of other spectrum. That's what we're trying to get legislators to look at. We're not looking to take $10.5 billion-$12 billion, we're looking to utilize a portion of the receipts of a spectrum auction that will generate additional funds for debt reduction. I think we'll have a little bit easier path with the approach in S.911.

WW: So if I understand you correctly, you're hoping to pay for this network out of some of the proceeds from other spectrum auctions?

Riddle: Yes, the president has identified 500 MHz of spectrum that he feels is feasible for auction. All we want out of that is 10 MHz from the D Block. The rest would be utilized for whatever federal funding is needed, primarily debt reduction. A small component of that would be used as a part of the money needed to facilitate the buildout of the broadband network for public safety.

WW: Spectrum plays a huge part in this. How does the fact that the government won't be able to make money off the D Block spectrum if it allocates it to public safety, versus auctioning it off to operators, factor into the various delays on the bill?

Riddle: I think that was one of the early positions that was taken on, primarily by some of the House Republicans. I think what they've got to realize is that 10 MHz is extremely small compared to the 500 MHz that we're looking at as available for auction. The operational realities also have to be understood. That D Block is adjacent to current 10 MHz used for public safety purposes. We've had studies that show that 10 MHz is not adequate for public safety's needs. We need 20 MHz, which would include the D Block spectrum. This has been reviewed by engineers such as Andy Seybold and Peter Rysavy, who agree with our analysis of what it's going to take to run a public safety broadband network successfully.

The other thing we're looking to do is partner with other entities where we have adequate spectrum resources that would be available for use but other users, such as utilities or even the public. However, public safety would need priority access so in times of critical demand we could take over the spectrum and use it for emergency purposes for the benefit of the public and public safety.

WW: There are a lot of different bills being circulated. Could you give me a rundown of the current state of bills circulating through the House and Senate?

Riddle: There's three pieces of legislation in the Senate right now. The one that I've spoken about that we fully support is S.911, which is a change in bill S. 28. S. 28 was the first language of a public safety bill put out by Sen. Rockefeller. To play on Sept. 11 he changed its name to S. 911 – it's basically the same thing as S. 28. That bill is out of the Senate Commerce Committee on a 21-4 vote. Then there's S. 1040, which came out of Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee with support from Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. John McCain. They've come together on a bipartisan basis to sponsor S. 1040.

Then there's H.6078, which is from the House Homeland Security Committee and was authored by Peter King - who over a year ago was one of our first public safety champions when he brought out the first bill in support of the D Block – along with Benny Thompson, who's a Democrat out of Mississippi. There's also H.2482, which was recently introduced by Rep. John Dingell. That's a brand new piece of legislation.

What we really need to have happen is to have the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the representatives that serve on that committee bring out the language they've been working on - draft language we have not seen. We're anxiously awaiting their efforts and we're working with them the best we can to help them understand the need for D Block allocation and funding already available in S.911. We're hoping to get the companion legislation out of them very quickly so we can move this forward.

WW: Looking back, had you expected to see this legislation pass before lawmakers went on August recess or did you pretty much give up hope once the debt ceiling debate got started?

Riddle: Back in April or so, we were focused on the August recess. Obviously, that was compounded by the problems we had with the debt ceiling efforts in the House and Senate. We did have support from Sen. Harry Reid in his debt reduction bill, where he put in language on the D Block. There was also a congressman who put in the same language on the House side, but all of that language was stripped out in the last minute. We tried the best we could in getting our bills brought to the floor of the Senate, but it was unsuccessful.

WW:  This impasse has a real life impact on the public safety community as they wait and wait for this legislation to pass. What effect is the ongoing uncertainty over the legislation having on the public safety sector? Is it delaying the deployment of planned mobile broadband services, are agencies pushing ahead anyways?

Riddle: There are 21 agencies that asked for waivers to use the current 10 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband deployments. They are still moving ahead, but it is compromising their ability to engineer a network that is going to be robust enough to serve their needs in the long term without the additional 10 MHz in the D Block. They are still working to move forward, but they don't know when the D Block issue is going to be resolved and it puts them in a position where they may not have the broadband capacity that public safety needs.

WW: How robust are the nation's public safety networks right now? If we had another terrorist attack, would we see the same breakdown in communications we did 10 years ago?

Riddle: It's very possible because we have not addressed the interoperability concern. Public safety operations today are spread out over multiple portions of the spectrum -  VHF, UHF, 700 MHz, 800 MHz and low band. They all have their own interoperability capabilities, but when you have public safety utilizing multiple portions of the spectrum, they're not easily interoperable, which was demonstrated on Sept.11, 2001.

Interoperability is critical. It was one of the Sept. 11 Commission's report items that's not been met after 10 years – interoperability for public safety. We're still struggling to meet the goal as described in the report.

WW: Hopefully we'll see this issue resolved this fall. Was there anything else you'd like to add?

Riddle: The Public Safety Alliance has its full support behind S.911 and we're working diligently with all the partners and congress to make this a reality for public safety as quickly as possible. We think that along with our partners in Congress we have developed an adequate method of realizing that end result. We just need to get Congress to listen and support our efforts in the near future.

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