During the June 8 executive session of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the committee voted 21 to 4 in favor of sending S. 911, the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2011, to the Senate for consideration. Multiple amendments were accepted to the original legislation (S. 28) to shape its current form during the hearing.
The bill is the culmination of work done by Committee Chairman Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D- W.Va.) and Ranking Committee Member Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) to reach a bipartisan agreement that would reallocate 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band, known as the D Block, to public safety to build out a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network. The bill includes provisions for funding, governance and the implementation of Next Generation 9-1-1.
This legislation has been Rockefeller’s top priority for the committee this year. His goal: To get legislation passed that enables interoperability for public safety communications nationwide before the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Referring to the legislation as a “common sense bill” and invoking the memory of the events on 9/11, Rockefeller said, “We can bring first responders’ communications into the 21st century [with] this bill. … There are 2 million people across this country who need to be kept safe because they’re keeping us safe. And we can do that with this bill.”
Hutchinson said, “The Commerce Committee has come together to move forward the most significant piece of telecommunications legislation in a decade. … We have a bipartisan agreement that will build, without taxpayer funds, a 21st century public safety network that gives first responders the tools to do their jobs. Our bill will spur job creation, generate hundreds of billions in economic activity, and drive research and development while bringing down the national deficit. This is a common sense approach to a national priority, and I hope the Senate will pass S. 911 without delay,”
A Few Concerns
Although only four senators voted against the legislation, several senators emphasized their concerns about the bill during the hearing’s comment period.
Money and funding has been a huge concern for senators regarding this bill. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) called it a “spending bill that costs more than $17 billion. … It directly increases the deficit.”
Several senators, including Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and DeMint advocated for the FCC to auction the spectrum and require a public-private partnership to build out a network.
DeMint said, “I believe that we should allow private sector companies to purchase [the spectrum], with a public mission, to build out and make available a commercial network that will be constantly upgraded.”
He also criticized the governance structure, which is made up of key players at all levels of public safety and includes government and commercial representatives, set forth in the bill. According to DeMint, a centralized bureaucracy created in Washington, D.C., would hinder the network.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) disagreed with that position, saying that the bill has seen “enormous improvements in governance.”
For Warner, the greatest concerns were economies of scale, cost of equipment and the amount of spectrum public safety currently holds. He said, “It is an embarrassment that, after 10 years and 100 MHz of spectrum, we still don’t have an interoperable network. We shouldn’t have $5,000 public safety devices and $200 commercial devices with more functionality. We need to drive down those costs.”
Warner’s amendment to audit public safety spectrum was accepted during the beginning of the hearing and included in the final bill that was approved by the committee.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) was the only senator to offer a last-minute amendment to the bill, which would eliminate the $1 billion included for telecommunications research and development for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“There is a staggering amount of money being invested by the private sector,” said Toomey. “I just don’t think it’s wise for us to ask tax payers to throw more money into [it].”
Rockefeller, Hutchison and Warner spoke against this position. Hutchison noted that the lack of funding for research and development could hurt the U.S. in terms of its ability to compete globally in this market.
Warner said, “One of the reasons why the costs have never been driven down [in the public safety market] is because there is not the bleed over from the commercial network. It’s a system with a limited number of purchasers and vendors. … Until we have that R&D to drive [those costs] down, I think we will save in the long run. This will be a penny invested and dollars saved in the long run.”
Ultimately, this amendment failed to pass, with a 16 to 9 vote against it.
In light of all the concerns raised during the hearing, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), whose state lost 700 of its citizens in the 9/11 attacks, emphasized the legislation’s big picture: protecting U.S. citizens and first responders.
“Nothing changed America more than 9/11,” he said. “Why should we not now say, ‘Look we paid a terrible price, and let’s get on with solving the problem.’ Mr. Chairman, we have a lot of work to do, a lot of work to do, and I just wish that at times we could post up the faces of those who died [that day], 3,000 people. … We have to move these things along. I hope that the messages that are being delivered about caution here and caution there will look at this [bill] in a realistic fashion.”
S. 911 still has a long way to go. It must be co-sponsored by senators and approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives before making it to the president’s desk.
Rockefeller said, “I intend to have conversations with leadership immediately about timing for a vote by the full Senate. I strongly encourage my colleagues in the House to also move forward with this legislation so that we can sign it into law by September, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”
This legislation directly affects everyone in public safety — from the telecommunicator in the comm center to the responders in the field. Contact your senators and encourage them to support the bill. Learn how you can get involved at www.psafirst.org/take-action.
About the Author
Natasha Yetman is associate editor of APCO International’s magazine, Public Safety Communications. Contact her via e-mail.