Good Spectrum Policy Can Foster Safety

Publish date:

The East Coast earthquake aftershocks
and Hurricane Irene winds had barely subsided before
some invoked them to support reallocating 10 Megahertz
of commercial spectrum called the “D-block” to
public safety users. Now that everyone has
had a chance to assess the facts, however, a
very different story is emerging.

The hurricane impacted 6,500 of the approximately
46,000 cell sites in the affected
counties — less than 15% of the sites. What’s
more, only 1% of the outages were caused
by physical damage to a cell site. The vast
majority were caused by power disruptions,
post-hurricane flooding and backhaul problems.
Public safety reported similarly good
news on the survivability of its networks.

As for the earthquake, no cell sites failed.
And, according to the Federal Communications
Commission, as well as police and fire
chiefs up and down the East Coast, first responders’
voice networks capably handled any increased call traffic among public safety officials during the earthquake.
Commercial voice networks experienced brief periods
of congestion as large numbers of Americans tried to
call one another, but the congestion subsided relatively
quickly under the circumstances.

Commercial voice networks are designed to adapt
to spikes in demand, but cannot handle an unlimited
number of simultaneous calls. One national carrier said
that in the five minutes after the earthquake its network
received more than 2.5 million voice call requests in the
Washington, D.C., region alone. That’s more than five
times the normal call volume.


The good news is that the 4G wireless voice services that
commercial carriers are scheduled to begin deploying
in the next year or so can provide additional calling capacity
during times of peak demand. For this reason, 4G
wireless technologies can help alleviate the problem,
but additional spectrum for commercial wireless services
is what is needed to solve the problem.

The commercial spectrum shortage should come as
no surprise. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, President
Obama’s budget and legislation on both sides of
Capitol Hill aim to address the problem. Unfortunately,
the debate has become mired in a false choice between
providing for commercial users and providing for our
nation’s first responders. The legislation we are working
on in the House Energy and Commerce Committee
provides for both.

To meet the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission,
Congress passed the 2005 DTV Transition and
Public Safety Act, which required the nationwide clearing
of 24 MHz of spectrum for first responders. The FCC
says that spectrum is sufficient to meet public safety’s
needs. Now that the DTV transition is complete, we can
start building the nationwide public safety network.

A few public-safety officials have started using some
portions of the 24 MHz. They are not doing so in a nationally
coordinated fashion, however. They are also
using some of that spectrum for old-fashioned, narrowband
voice networks. The sooner all first responders
start fully utilizing the spectrum, as well as migrate from
narrowband voice to broadband, the better. Broadband
networks are even more resilient than narrowband
networks, which is evident in the
fact that commercial email and access to
sites like Facebook continued to flow during
the earthquake. And once first responders
migrate away from narrowband, voice
simply becomes an application on the data
network. Public-safety officials can then use
the entire 24 MHz of cleared spectrum for
broadband. The House Energy and Commerce
legislation would help accomplish
that by creating a national governance structure
to guarantee nationwide interoperability
and help build the network throughout
the country.


The legislation would also help meet the growing demand
for commercial broadband, creating jobs and
kick-starting the economy in the process. It would do
so by preserving auction of the D-block for commercial
use, as required by the 2005 DTV legislation, along with
other spectrum. To do otherwise would cost federal taxpayers
the $2.7 billion the Congressional Budget Office
has attributed to auction of the D-block. That’s money
that we need right now to reduce the deficit.

When the recent earthquake and hurricane struck,
the networks were robust enough to meet first responders’
voice needs and support broadband data communications
like Facebook and Twitter. However, average
citizens struggled to make contact with loved ones or
911 with a simple phone call. Since first responders already
control — but have not fully utilized — 24 MHz
of spectrum for broadband data communications, does
it make sense to give that community even more spectrum
from the D-block? Or would it be better utilized
elsewhere in the marketplace where the need appears
greater, if the natural disasters of late are any indicator?

In any event, Congress still needs to address voice
interoperability, but that’s not a capacity issue that requires
additional spectrum to solve.

Broadband networks for both voice and data are the
future of communications in America. While all of the
communications networks played important roles in
shepherding our country through the recent events —
from broadcasters and HAM radio operators to wireless
broadband and public-safety radios — the one thing we
know is that Americans are more connected than ever.
If we want the innovation that has put the Internet in the
palm of your hand to both continue for the commercial
sector and embrace public safety users, Congress must
address the need for additional spectrum for commercial
networks and development of the existing 24 MHz
for first responders. We plan to make that a reality.

Greg Walden is a Republican congressman representing
Oregon’s Second District.