Ten years ago, on Sept. 11, terrorists crashed airplanes into the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in northern Virginia and a field in rural Pennsylvania. In the scramble to respond to the terrorist attacks, multiple fire departments and other emergency agencies converged on the scenes, only to find that they couldn't talk to each other.
Most emergency response agencies, coming from multiple jurisdictions, operated their own radio systems using different bands of the wireless spectrum. In New York, police and fire radio channels were overloaded, and many emergency workers in the North Tower died because they missed calls to evacuate after the South Tower collapsed.
Since the 9/11 attacks, dozens of U.S. lawmakers -- as well as public safety groups and the 9/11 Commission -- have called on the government to create a nationwide mobile voice and data network for emergency responders. It hasn't happened.
The effort to build a nationwide network has been stalled since early 2008, when a block of mobile spectrum designated for a shared public safety and commercial network failed to sell in the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's 700MHz auction. The FCC set a reserve price of US$1.3 billion, but bidders were scared away by the cost of building the network and by other rules attached to the so-called D block.
The top bid for the D block spectrum was $472 million. The spectrum -- and a nationwide public safety network -- have been in limbo since, with U.S. lawmakers unable to agree on a path forward and other issues garnering more attention.
Still, more than seven years after the 9/11 Commission released its report, some public safety officials are hopeful that congressional approval for a nationwide network is close.
"Following 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, a record year for tornadoes, serious wildfires in the West, an earthquake in Virginia and Hurricane Irene, the proof of the need for a dedicated and mission critical nationwide public safety network is overwhelming," said Charles Werner, fire chief in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a long-time proponent of a nationwide network. "Yes to a nationwide public safety network is the only conceivable answer."
Many police officers and firefighters now use commercial mobile phone services to communicate on the job, advocates of a nationwide network said. But during 9/11 and more recent disasters "commercial wireless services were challenged in one way or another," Werner said. "If the network doesn't work at the moment public safety needs it most, it is useless and dangerous."
Congress appears ready to move forward with legislation that would create a nationwide network, said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
"I am frustrated but I am also very hopeful," said McEwen, also a retired police chief in Ithaca, New York, and a former deputy assistant director at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. "It has been disappointing that Congress hasn't addressed this matter sooner but I am optimistic we are finally getting close to their taking action."
The Senate may take up legislation authorizing funding and spectrum for a national network as soon as later this month. The Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act would give the 10MHz D block to emergency response agencies, allowing the agencies to pair the spectrum with another 10MHz already dedicated to emergency communications.
Advocates of a nationwide public safety network have long argued that many emergency response networks are badly outdated, with many U.S. teenagers' smartphones offering better tools.
A high-speed voice and data network would allow firefighters to download floor plans for burning buildings and let police download the criminal records of people they encounter, advocates have said. A new network also would allow police officers to use smart devices to take pictures of fingerprints at crime scenes and get immediate matches from law enforcement databases, according to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
The Senate bill would direct the FCC to develop technical and operational standards for a nationwide network. It would allow the FCC to share auction proceeds with television stations and other spectrum holders that voluntarily give up spectrum, with some of the government's proceeds funding the public safety network.
Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller, the committee chairman and bill sponsor, has called the public safety network a top priority. "Implementing a national, interoperable radio system for our first responders is within our grasp," he said in a recent statement. "It will save lives all across the country, and we owe it to first responders to get it done. There is bipartisan legislation awaiting Senate action that would accomplish this goal."
The Rockefeller bill passed through the Senate Commerce Committee in June with a 21-4 bipartisan vote. Still, passage of the bill is not guaranteed, particularly in the Republican controlled House of Representatives.
Top Republicans in the House Energy and Commerce Committee have voiced opposition to efforts to give the D block to public safety agencies, citing budget concerns. Auctioning the D block could raise $3 billion for the U.S. Treasury as the government faces record deficits, some Republicans have argued.
In 2010, there seemed to be a consensus forming around auctioning the D block, with the FCC, leading House Energy and Commerce Democrats and some members of the 9/11 Commission supporting an auction, Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and committee chairman, said during a July hearing. Then, in February, President Barack Obama called for Congress to give the D block away.
"Let's be honest, but for the president's call in February to allocate the D block, we'd be much further along today," Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, said during the July hearing. "I know we'll hear arguments about how that was then and this is now and things have changed, but at the heart of the matter, absent the president's proposal, D block would not be quite the stumbling block it has become.
"My comments are not intended to be partisan, however, they are intended to state the political reality that has fallen upon our committee," Walden added. "I'm just stating the obvious about the awkward."
Public safety groups told the House committee they'd strongly oppose any efforts to auction the D block.
Despite the disagreement over the D block, public safety groups say they are optimistic that Congress will authorize the network. "There's more resolve than ever," said Sean Kirkendall, an advisor to the Public Safety Alliance, a group pushing for a nationwide network.
There is considerable support for allocating the D block, with the former chairmen of the 9/11 Commission now calling for Congress to give the spectrum to emergency responders. "The public safety community, many commercial carriers and the White House are on record supporting allocating the D Block to public safety," McEwen said. "We still believe that those who have not supported that position will, in the end, change their mind and support the needs of public safety."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]