Choosing sides in the spectrum debate

The heated debate over the future radio spectrum needs of first responders is pitting public safety representatives such as police and fire chiefs against major telecommunications companies. Both groups are fighting over the rights to spectrum expected to go up for public auction next year.

An entity that may be adding confusion to the mix is the First Response Coalition, a nonprofit organization in Washington claiming to represent public safety interests but also receiving significant funding from Verizon Communications Inc. The group also features a Verizon executive on its advisory board of directors. In its position paper, the coalition calls for efficient use of spectrum and posits a need to avoid disruption of the spectrum auction.

Recently, a public safety official questioned the credibility of the coalition's involvement.

Charles Werner, fire chief of Charlottesville, Va., said he appeared at a recent conference in which members of the First Response Coalition were invited to speak, but no police and fire chiefs initially were invited to be on the speaking panels.

"As to credibility, none of the national fire and law enforcement organizations are members," Werner told Washington Technology. "So why is it so often that they [the coalition] are asked to speak or participate on panels? Second, previous reports by a number of a news articles identified that this organization was largely funded by Verizon."

The coalition was formed in 2004 by Gene Stilp, an attorney and volunteer firefighter outside Philadelphia, and by a public relations firm, Issue Dynamics, whose major clients included Verizon. The coalition received substantial funding from Verizon. Several police and fire officials serving on a coalition panel quickly dropped their memberships because they said they were not aware of the source of funding.

Since then, the coalition has obtained nonprofit status and has received support from about 20 groups, including a handful related to police and fire.

"We have received funding from Verizon, [the] Satellite Industry Association and T-Mobile. We are not solely funded by Verizon," said Steven Jones, executive director of the coalition. "I reach out to organizations who care about first responders and seek their support. Our supporters include all-hazards consortiums, black professional firefighters and the Southeast Louisiana Search and Rescue. We've grown and the work we are doing is in the first responders' interest and in the communities' interest."

Despite such statements, the First Response Coalition's arguments are being used by at least one company aligned with the telecommunications industry to bolster its own case regarding spectrum.

In her filing with the FCC on behalf of Cisco Systems Inc., Mary Brown, the company's director of spectrum and technology policy, describes the First Response Coalition as a public safety organization. She said the coalition's comments as an example of broad consensus in favor of the FCC's proposed set-aside of 12 MHz for public safety, a position that Cisco also supports.

However, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, Werner and many other public safety representatives say 12 MHz is not enough. Brown did not respond to a request for comment.

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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