Selling public safety to the highest bidder
It is just a few hours after the Oklahoma City bombing. You are a young firefighter reduced to running messages between those on the front line and those overseeing the operation because the communication lines are too jammed for the first responders to effectively communicate. You are one less firefighter actively working to save the lives of those trapped in the building.
Oklahoma City Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Jon Hansen arrived on the scene of the Murrah building minutes after it exploded. He says that just three minutes after the blast, the communications network went down. “It’s not a budget issue, it’s about saving lives,” he points out.
The Oklahoma City bombing dramatically highlighted the problem of frequency allocation. “There wasn’t enough allocated frequency, otherwise known as spectrum, for this type of emergency,” says Pete Peterson, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R – Pa.). “As soon as the bombing occurred, everyone jumped on a mobile phone to see if someone they knew was all right,” he says. “That made it much more difficult for emergency crews to receive proper instructions and locations. There was too much interference for emergency crews to get through, forcing messages to be relayed on foot.”
Spectrum, the space that contains all radio, television and microwave frequencies, is becoming more and more congested. It cannot be increased, only reallocated.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) originally assigned frequencies to telecommunications providers, but that changed with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which authorized the commission to use competitive bidding to award licenses in some areas of the spectrum. Proceeds from these spectrum auctions were intended to reduce the national debt.
Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, the process created problems for public safety agencies, which contend that they are consistently overlooked in the spectrum battle between the federal government and the entertainment industry. These agencies, which did not have much space to begin with, could not afford to compete against the private sector in auctions.
The narrow bands used by emergency personnel are becoming more crowded as more emergency vehicles, each with its own communications abilities, are put on the street. Cellular phones, beepers and other private communication applications have also helped jam the airwaves.
Congested frequencies are not the only problem emergency medical services are encountering. They also are unable to communicate with each other on the same equipment and frequencies. This obstacle to communication can cause a loss of response time, placing the safety of both victims and public safety personnel at additional risk.
Crowded frequencies however, were one of the problems in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing in March 1993. Because of the spectrum problems, first responders could not contact those trapped inside the building. Consequently, television broadcasts provided victims with their only knowledge about rescue efforts. Without consulting the first responders, one local news station advised the trapped victims to break out the windows of the Trade Center to avoid suffocation. In doing so, the victims unknowingly endangered rescue workers lives with falling glass and may have made things worse by letting in more oxygen.
Still, it isn’t just large emergencies that cause these types of problems, Peterson says. “We have had ambulances go to the wrong address because the station is so fuzzy that they cannot hear the information. This is not an issue that we can afford to take lightly.”
“Communication is a critical requirement of the public safety community,” Rep. Weldon says. “There have been increasing problems in recent years of interference that hinders the ability of public safety officials to respond to emergencies. Before we assign spectrum to broadcasters, we need to ensure that the long-term needs of our public safety community are met. In order to maintain our ability to rapidly respond to emergencies, we need to provide our public safety community with the digital spectrum it needs to operate efficiently and effectively.”
The FCC’s Solution To solve these problems, the FCC adopted the recommendation of the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC) that an additional 24 megahertz between the channels 60-69 (the 746-806 MHz band) be set aside for public safety. This band is immediately adjacent to spectrum already in use by public safety agencies in the 800MHz band, so existing channels could communicate with the proposed new ones. Public safety agencies want to take control of this band, because it is unlikely that other large blocks of appropriate spectrum will become available.
The PSWAC, formed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the FCC, has the responsibility for defining public safety needs at the federal, state and local levels. After gathering information from commercial providers and manufacturers as well as federal, state and local public safety agencies, the committee submitted a report in September 1996 that defined the spectrum requirements of public safety entities through the year 2010. That report concluded that “unless immediate measures are taken to alleviate spectrum shortfalls and promote interoperability (the ability of different public safety agencies to communicate over common channels), public safety agencies will not be able to adequately discharge their obligation to protect life and property in a safe,efficient and cost-effective manner.”
The budget reconciliation act mandates that channels 60 through 69, which currently belong to approximately 90 full-power TV stations across the country, be given back to the FCC in exchange for alternate digital channels worth approximately $70 billion. The FCC’s plan will leave these stations in place until the end of the transition to high definition digital television, approximately five years away. Additionally, a large number of low-power TV stations and translators on these channels understand that they may be required to relinquish those channels at some point in the future. The FCC will, however, attempt to accommodate as many low-power and translator stations as possible.
The FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology has determined that allocating these channels to public safety will not interfere with the broadcasters’ conversion to digital television. Every current station will still receive a second TV channel during transition. A channel plan that would require approximately five DTV allotments in channels 60-69 is currently being considered.
The allocation of these channels would mean progress on new public safety technologies, including high speed, wide area over-the-air transmission of high resolution images, such as fingerprints, mugshots, building diagrams, medical records, crime information and hazardous waste data. The technology for these and other applications exists, but cannot be implemented within current congested public safety allocations.
Although the proposal requiring broadcasters to give the 10 channels back to the FCC was adopted last spring, Congress overrode the agreement and adopted legislation significantly delaying the give-back. Ac-cording to Frank Shafroth, director of policy and federal relations for the National League of Cities, the new law not only delays the proposed deadline for four years but also will permit many broadcasters to obtain new and valuable digital channels for nothing while retaining their existing channels.
These actions threaten public safety but also raise many questions regarding non-payment on spectrum already auctioned off. It is unclear whether the FCC commissioners will repossess the space for non-payment and reallocate or re-auction it, or whether it will grant discounts to bidders who have not paid their bill. Some $10 billion has been bid, but the federal government is unlikely to collect more than $3 billion, according to Shafroth.
NLC is strongly urging the FCC to reallocate additional spectrum for public safety as soon as possible. Yet, even if the space is redistributed, it will benefit only a handful of major cities, Shafroth says.
The remainder must wait until the DTV transition is complete, a process expected to be long and drawn out. Under the proposed FCC rule, public safety service licenses are to be assigned no later than September 30, 1998.
“Everyone pays all the attention to the broadcasters regarding this issue, and little is said about public safety agencies,” says Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute. “Every fire department and police department in this country expresses concern over this issue. The public needs to be asked the question whether digital television or public safety is more important.”