Congress earmarks funds for interoperable communications

Interoperable communications for first responders gets a boost in two pieces of legislation moving through Congress.

A budget reconciliation bill, approved by the House Monday, includes a new $1 billion federal grant program for police and fire agency interoperable communications to be funded by the public auction of radio spectrum. The Senate is expected to vote on the Deficit Reduction Act (S1932) this week.

The program was created in an amendment introduced by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., which allocates funding for the new program from the sale of radio spectrum that will be freed when television broadcasters shift to high-definition television.

Under the budget bill, the transition date, which was previously left open-ended, now will be set as Feb. 17, 2009. The spectrum sale is expected to generate more than $10 billion for the Treasury.

"If we learned anything from 9-11 and Katrina, we learned that our first responders are woefully unequipped as it relates to interoperability," Upton said in a news release. "We need a national vision for funding, equipment and technology and this program is an important step in that direction."

Under the bill, the Commerce Department's office of National Telecommunications and Information Administration, in consultation with the Homeland Security Department, will administer the new grant program, Upton said.

In recent years, DHS, the Justice Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been involved in distributing first responder interoperability funding, but not Commerce.

In the second boost to interoperable communications, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., announced there is $80 million for border-control law enforcement radio communications contained in the fiscal 2006 Defense Appropriations conference report, expected to be approved by the Senate this week. Gregg chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

The new funding is part of $1.14 billion for customs and border protection in the defense spending bill, including money for vehicles, helicopters, airplane hangars, training centers and communications equipment, Gregg said in a news release.

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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