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House Votes to Reallocate D Block to Public Safety

By Laura DeKoven Waxman
December 19, 2011

The House voted December 13 to reallocate the D Block of the 700 MHz spectrum to public safety as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2011. That bill, which would extend the Social Security payroll tax cut for another year, passed on a 234-193 vote, with 14 Republicans voting against passage and ten Democrats voting for it. The bill is not expected to pass the Senate in its current form, and the White House has threatened a veto because of provisions relating to the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline construction. The Conference of Mayors, along with all of the other major organizations, which represent state and local government and public safety, strongly supports reallocation of the D Block to public safety.

The bill includes the Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum Act, which was reported out of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee December 1, pretty much on a party line vote. In a dramatic reversal, the Subcommittee's Chairman, Oregon Representative Greg Walden, included in the bill the reallocation of the D Block to public safety while authorizing the auction of a number of other parts of the spectrum. Walden and full Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan had previously opposed reallocation of the D Block to public safety.

In a November 30 letter to Upton, Conference of Mayors CEO and Executive Director Tom Cochran thanked him for including reallocation of the D Block in the legislation, calling it "absolutely necessary if we are to ensure that our nation's first responders are able to access a broadband network capable of providing reliable high speed data and voice applications so that they canmeet current and future public safety needs."

In return for reallocation of the D Block, however, the bill requires that the 700 MHz narrowband channels of spectrum currently used for public safety narrowband communications be given back and auctioned for private purposes. Cochran's letter expressed concern with this requirement, which poses a considerable problem for a number of cities which have invested heavily in these narrowband communications.

For example, Houston is currently in the implementation stage of building a $125- million public safety land mobile radio system on 700 MHz narrowband channels. This system, which is not projected to be completed until August 2013, is expected to have a useful life of at least 15-20 years. Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker, Chair of the Conference of Mayors Criminal and Social Justice Committee, wrote to Walden expressing her concern with the provision. "While I recognize the need to create revenue to off'set the funding of the nationwide system, we do not believe it should be at the expense of local and state taxpayers or this valuable capability used mostly by state and local first responders," she said. "I strongly encourage the elimination of the give back provision and instead suggest a timeline tied to the standard that would have the FCC report back to Congress on the feasibility and timing of a possible future reallocation of the narrowband spectrum."

Other provisions in the bill of concern to mayors include the governance model which it establishes for the planning, development, and implementation of the network; a provision which preempts local zoning decisions regarding certain modifications to local cell towers, and the funding level for the development of the network, which is considerably less than that provided in other bills.

Regardless of what bill the public safety communication provisions are attached to, those provisions will have to be reconciled with the version of the legislation moving through the Senate. In July the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee reported out S. 911, bipartisan legislation co'sponsored by its Chairman, West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, and Ranking Member Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Their bill, the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act, which is strongly supported by the Conference of Mayors, would reallocate the D Block to public safety, protect narrowband communications, set up a workable governance structure with strong involvement of local and state governments and public safety, and provide up to $12 billion for the development and operation of the network. Unfortunately, it does contain the same provision as the House bill regarding modification of cell towers.