INSIDE WASHINGTON/Locals fighting for more air time
President Clinton and key congressional Republicans are on the same frequency when it comes to advocating additional radio spectrum for local police, fire and emergency rescue operations. Both the president’s fiscal 1998 budget and Senator John McCain’s new “Law Enforcement and Public Safety Telecommunications Empowerment Act” advocate taking 24 Megahertz (MHz) of spectrum that is now being used by UHF television channels 60-69 and turning it over to public safety agencies in cities and counties.
“We are absolutely thrilled,” says Mark Schwartz, the Oklahoma City councilmember who serves as president of the National League of Cities. Schwartz says1 he remembers the difficulty his city police and emergency rescue teams had communicating via radio with federal and state rescue workers in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.
“We couldn’t communicate until Southwestern Bell and Cellular One gave us priority calling phones,” he says.
Oklahoma City has an RFP out for converting police and fire frequencies from their current low spectrum ranges to 800MHz, which would allow much more versatile and robust radio traffic.
The conversion will cost the city $20 million to $30 million, money that will be used to purchase the new radio and data equipment needed to take advantage of the larger bandwidth.
Still, before Oklahoma City and other localities can move up to 800 MHz, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will have to provide the 24 MHz that is expected to come from the 746-806 frequencies currently being used by the UHF channels.
Clinton’s public backing of the change and its seconding by Arizona Republican McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, make it very likely the FCC will endorse the public safety initiative as part of its “Digital Television Allotment Plan.” This plan reorganizes the spectrum, dictating which airwaves are available for what purpose, so that once television stations switch to digital technology they are generally restricted to channels 7-51. A proposal to that effect published in August 1996 did not specifically offer the new channels, which FCC Chairman Reed Hundt calls “beachfront property,” for public safety purposes. However, in February 1997, Hundt did say, “The reclaiming of local vacant TV channels by limiting the number of digital TV allotments is the fastest and most effective way to make available critically needed spectrum to support public safety day-to-day, as well as in times of disaster.”
McCain’s bill goes one step beyond acquiring the 24 MHz by authorizing the FCC to auction off an additional 36 MHz in the 746-806 MHz range and use 10 percent of the proceeds to help fund state and local purchases of public safety radio equipment. Cities could then tap into the $200 million to $300 million McCain estimates the auction would bring.
Television stations, of course, are lobbying against McCain’s bill. The National Association of Broadcasters has traditionally opposed efforts to take away channels 60-69 and disagrees with the FCC that digital technology makes them unnecessary.
But Frank Shafroth, director of policy and federal relations for the NLC, does not think TV muscle will prevail. “The Clinton and McCain proposals reflect a big change in federal perspective,” he says. “Until January, spectrum was simply a telecommunications issue. Now it is a public safety issue. It will be hard to argue that seeing reruns of ‘Lassie Come Home’ is more important than seeing the local police and fire department pull up to your house when you need them.”
The author is the Washington correspondent for American City & County.