Houston Mayor Parker Delivers USCM's Call for Quick Passage of Public Safety Communications Bill on Capitol Hill
By Laura DeKoven Waxman
October 4, 2010
Houston Mayor Annise Parker, in testimony September 23 before the Senate Commerce Committee, underscored the U.S. Conference of Mayors' support for quick passage of the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act (S. 3756), West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller's proposal to reallocate the “D Block” of the 700 MHz spectrum to public safety and provide for the development and operation of a national interoperable public safety communications network. Parker, Chair of the Conference of Mayors Criminal and Social Justice Committee, joined leaders of major public safety organizations in a capitol hill hearing and press conference on the legislation.
In her testimony, Parker thanked Rockefeller, Chair of the Commerce Committee, for listening to the strong concerns which public safety and local and state government officials have with the FCC's plan to auction off the D Block to the highest bidder for commercial applications. She told the Senator that his legislation would ensure that the nation's first responders are able to access a broadband network capable of providing reliable high speed data and voice applications so that they can meet current and future public safety needs, and assured him that the Conference of Mayors looks forward to working with him to see S.3756 enacted into law.
Parker suggested changes to one provision in the legislation. “While we understand the important role that states must play in the development of a nationwide interoperable broadband network, and that it's easier for the federal government to deal with 50 states than thousands of local governments, we hope that you will include some language that will make it possible for funding to also go directly to the local agencies which are responsible for the build out, operation, and maintenance of broadband networks,” she said.
Alaska Senator and former Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a member of the Commerce Committee, agreed with the mayor on the importance of the option of providing direct funding to local agencies.
There was considerable discussion during the hearing about the funding needed to build out and support a interoperable public safety network. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Committee's Ranking Member, commented that she wants to turn over needed spectrum to public safety, but that how to pay for it is a huge issue. Parker stressed that her city is paying for it now – that local communities are bearing all of the costs (of what she later referred to as a patchwork system) and don't have a choice in the matter. Later in response to a question from Virginia Senator John Warner about where the money for the system would come from, Rockefeller commented that his bill pays for itself through incentive auctions of other available parts of the spectrum.
Another major issue was the problems that arise from relying on commercial providers. Related to this is the lack of any kind of wireless coverage in rural areas, as is the case in much of West Virginia, and that it isn't necessarily in the business interest of cellular providers to cover those areas. Further, commercial systems are not mission-critical; they don't provide the kind of reliability public safety officials need. And, commercial providers will never agree to the absolute pre-emption public safety would need when a disaster or other major event occurs.
Parker was joined in calling for passage of the bill by San Jose Police Chief Robert Davis, representing Major Cities Chiefs; Western Fire Chiefs Association Chief Executive Jeff Johnson, representing the the International Association of Fire Chiefs; and Jackson County (WV) Emergency Medical Services Director Stephen McClure.
Also on the panel was Ret. Admiral James Barnett, Chief of the Public Safety Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission. Barnett said that the FCC's top priority is an interoperable nationwide network and that they will work toward that regardless of what Congress does (presumably referring to the Rockefeller bill). Rockefeller said that he saw that as a “clinically neutral” statement and that for the FCC that was “a big improvement.”
Report to USCM Leadership
Following the events on the hill, Parker joined the Conference of Mayors Fall Leadership Meeting and reported to the mayors on the D Block issue and the hearing. She described the policy resolution adopted last June at the Conference of Mayors annual meeting in Oklahoma City, mentioning that the organization's position on D Block is shared by all of the major public safety organizations and all of the state and local government organizations in the Big 7.
Parker also described Rockefeller's bill and some of the issues discussed during the hearing, including her concerns with the Barnett's phrase that, “Local first responders would be allowed to negotiate priority system overrides with appropriate compensation.” (See excerpts from Parker's remarks at press conference.) The mayors discussed the importance of building support for the Rockefeller bill in the Senate and asked that an alert go to all mayors asking them to contact their senators and urge them to support and co'sponsor S. 3756. Conference of Mayors CEO and Executive Director Tom Cochran sent out an alert that evening. It is available online at http://usmayors.org/chs/uploads/dblockalert.pdf.