Emergency responders ask lawmakers for more spectrum

Police and fire organizations called on the U.S. Congress to give them more radio spectrum for communications interoperability than the 24MHz they're due to get in early 2009.

Representatives of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Chiefs of Police on Thursday told a U.S. Senate committee that they need an additional 30MHz of spectrum. The government is scheduled to auction spectrum to commercial users as U.S. television stations abandon the upper 700MHz spectrum band in February 2009, under a law passed last year.

The additional spectrum would help public safety agencies deploy broadband communications systems that would fix the radio interoperability problems that plagued emergency workers following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Charles Werner, fire chief for Charlottsville, Virginia. Congress must act before the spectrum is auctioned to private companies in the next year, he said.

"I encourage Congress to take advantage of this very limited, one-time opportunity," Werner said. "We cannot suggest too strongly the urgent and identified need for broadband capability that public safety can use with assurance that it will work when needed, be available when needed, and is affordable."

But some members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee questioned the plan to put the additional 30MHz of spectrum into a public safety broadband trust.

The new spectrum plan, first advanced by Cyren Call Communications Corp. last April, could potentially cost the government billions of dollars in lost auction revenue, said Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican. The committee, in its DTV (digital television) transition bill, budgeted at least US$10 billion to be raised by the spectrum auctions, with $1 billion going to fund emergency communications interoperability efforts.

The Cyren Call plan is "impossible for us to do fiscally," Stevens said.

Stevens' criticism echoed the High Tech DTV Coalition, a group of technology vendors, which on Tuesday called on the Senate to stick to the original spectrum plan.

Cyren Call Chairman Morgan O'Brien said the company's plan calls for the broadband trust to raise $5 billion from private investors to pay for the 30MHz of spectrum. Private investors would pay for expensive public safety broadband networks, instead of Congress or local governments, he said.

Nearly all public safety organizations support the broadband trust concept, O'Brien added. "This is a crying out for help," he said. "We're sending men and women into dangerous situations every day, knowing their devices are inferior."

But the spectrum auctions could raise billions of dollars more than what the Cyren Call plan offers to pay, Stevens said. And Steve Largent president and CEO of CTIA, a trade group representing wireless carriers, questioned whether the broadband trust would find enough investors to fund a broadband wireless rollout for public safety, especially in rural areas.

Other senators suggested alternative approaches to the Cyren Call plan. Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, suggested that public safety agencies could better use the 25MHz of spectrum they already have. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, said public safety agencies in her state and elsewhere are finding success using existing spectrum with radio over IP (Internet Protocol) devices.

This "boot-strap" approach using open standards and radio over IP could cost as little as $300 million across the U.S., as opposed to an average of about $1 billion per state using other equipment, said David Billstrom, chairman and CEO of public safety consulting group National Interop Inc. and a volunteer firefighter.

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