Congress seeks more radio spectrum for first responders

First responders would have more radio spectrum in the 700 megahertz band under legislation approved Oct. 20 by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee as part of the fiscal 2006 fiscal budget resolution. The spectrum would be available starting April 7, 2009.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to mark up its version of the budget legislation Oct. 26. The House version is expected to include a definite transition date of Jan. 1, 2009, for the same radio spectrum.

Both House and Senate bills anticipate generating up to $10 billion for the federal Treasury by auctioning off some of the radio spectrum relinquished by broadcasters. The Senate committee bill allocates $5 billion from the auction for deficit reduction, $3 billion for consumer subsidies and a portion of the remainder for upgrades to first responder communication equipment.

The long-sought-after transition date for the 700 MHz radio spectrum is considered to be a critical component in improving communications between police, fire and other emergency agencies to make their systems more interoperable among a greater number of agencies over a broader region. Currently, many of the enhancements are stymied by a lack of available radio spectrum.

Access to additional spectrum in the 700 MHz band has been held up by provisions in the laws governing broadcasters' transition to digital television. Under the 1997 transition law, broadcasters must turn over the radio spectrum for public safety uses by Dec. 31, 2006, but only if they have achieved 85 percent market penetration with digital TV by that date. If not, then the transition date would be flexible, which has been viewed as a loophole in the law.

Many police, fire and emergency groups, including the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International Inc. of Daytona, Fla., as well as wireless companies, have lobbied for a definitive date for the transition.

On Oct. 20, Bill Anaya, Motorola's senior director of congressional operations, urged the Senate committee to enact a hard transition date.

"Our nation's first responders need this sooner, rather than later, to save lives, including their own," Anaya said in a statement. "Once broadcasters make the move, our nation's first responders can achieve improved interoperability and be able to communicate with one another day to day, and during the next emergency."

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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