DHS promises flexibility for $1b interoperability grants

The Homeland Security Department plans to release details shortly on how it intends to allocate to states a new $1 billion fund designated for interoperable public safety communications.

The department aims to be flexible to help states that already have made investments in new radio systems, a DHS official said. Congress has mandated that DHS make the funding available to states by Sept. 30.

DHS is developing program application and guidance materials to support all activities in the interoperability continuum developed by the department's Safecom program, including allowable costs for planning, technology procurement, exercises and training, Corey Gruber, acting assistant secretary for DHS' Office of Grants and Training, testified at a recent congressional hearing.

The money is being available through a scheduled auction of radio spectrum to take place in 2008. Congress moved deployment of the $1 billion a year forward by a year in the Call Home Act of 2006.

"We will award all the funding by Sept. 30 as required in the Call Home Act," Gruber said.

Congress directed that the funding go for systems that use radio spectrum in the 700 MHz band that is soon to be allocated for public safety, or to provide interoperability with future systems, Gruber told the House Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness and Response.

However, there are concerns about states, such as Pennsylvania, which have made investments in new radio systems in the 800 MHz band. "My question is how will the grant guidance for the new $1 billion program ensure that agencies like the Pennsylvania State Police are not penalized for their past investments?" Rep. Charles Dent (R-Penn) asked at the hearing.

Gruber said DHS will support systems outside of the 700 MHz band. "We believe it's important to support interoperability beyond 700 megahertz to ensure we can meet public safety agencies' unique requirements," Gruber said.

The department on Feb. 16 signed a memorandum of understanding with the Commerce Department to allow DHS to distribute the $1 billion in funding for acquisition, deployment and training related to interoperable communications systems. The Commerce Department retains ultimate approval over distribution of the funds, Gruber said.

Up to five percent of the funding will be used by states to support their statewide planning efforts, Gruber said. The remainder of the funds will be conditioned on acceptance of the statewide plans and supporting investment justifications, he said. Amounts awarded to each state will be allocated based on a modified version of the department's 2007 risk methodology, Gruber said.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration will retain about $11 million of the total grant funding for administrative purposes.

John Kneuer, assistant secretary for communications and information at NTIA, noted that Congress has directed that most of the funding will go to support technology and equipment.

"Our reading is that it would not include the funding of large-scale plans ? large-scale exercises that don't include a communications component ? or the drafting of interagency, interjurisdictional governance documents," Kneuer said.

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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