Since 2001, we have heard the growing cry from public safety officials that the police, firefighters and emergency medical response personnel throughout the country need help achieving interoperability in today’s communications world.
Sadly, this problem predated September 11th.
More than a decade ago the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration formed the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee to examine the communications needs of first responders and public safety officials.
That report called for more spectrum, technological solutions and more funding, and was filed 5 years to the day before the tragedy of 9/11.
It called for those improvements to save lives on a daily basis. These solutions are not just geared for the huge disasters, but are also geared for the every day tragedies that can be avoided with better communications and better interoperability.
Thanks to the work of the last Congress, public safety stands ready to finally receive the help that the FCC and NTIA called for more than 10 years ago.
Last year, the Congress set a hard date for broadcasters to turn over 24 MHz of spectrum to public safety for communications and interoperability.
Right now the FCC is examining proposals to maximize the broadband potential of that spectrum, which will bring great new services and capabilities to policemen, firefighters and other emergency personnel.
In addition, Congress created a $1 billion interoperability grant program with the funds that will be received from auctioning off the rest of the spectrum recovered from broadcasters. That program originated out of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Additionally, at the very end of Congress, we accelerated the granting of the awards as part of the Call Home Act. Therefore, by law, the interoperability grants much be awarded by September 30, 2007. Public safety has been waiting a very long time for these funds and they finally have a date certain when the interoperability grants will be awarded.
Having worked with the FCC and NTIA over the last decade, the Senate Commerce Committee has watched as the public safety communications market has evolved and we have heard about a number of technological solutions that can address both near term and long term interoperability needs.
IP systems can be used as bridges between otherwise incompatible communications systems.
Strategic technological reserves can be created to quickly replace infrastructure that is destroyed in large scale disasters. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita demonstrated the need for portable wireless systems that are readily deployed when a disaster destroys the existing communications infrastructure.
Standards development and dedicated interoperability channels facilitate planning, and incident management between agencies.
And all of these solutions can be achieved now and are provided for by the provisions of the Commerce Committee’s interoperability provisions.
Unfortunately, the Senator from Oklahoma’s amendment would delay all of these solutions. That would be unfortunate for public safety and it would be very harmful to the public.
The Homeland Committee has created its own interoperability program that is separate from the Commerce’s billion dollar program. However, that program is a separate one. It is focused on the long term, after additional planning is done and would still be several years away from even awarding grants, let alone implementing them.
It is time that we finally deliver on our promises to the police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel around the country and deliver the technological reserves, and the interoperable communications help that first responders need now by moving forward with the $1 billion public safety grant program being administered by NTIA.
But, we cannot wait any longer. We cannot plan indefinitely. These solutions take time to implement. We must move forward now.
With the Commerce program, public safety will be able to move forward with real solutions and begin addressing the problems that have plagued our nation’s first responders for too long.
We’re able to come across some really interesting innovations too. Through the NTIA’s program, it is possible to use communications concepts to bring about interoperability without a large expenditure for new equipment.
This first $1 billion will stretch real far if it’s used under the plans for the NTIA. If it is delayed, and unfortunately I think that’s what the Senator from Oklahoma’s amendment would do, it will really put us in a position where we cannot implement what’s been done now. These people, the first responders have been planning now for three years to get this money, and it is going to be paid out this year under the program that we've already enacted into law.
I would urge my friend from Oklahoma, don’t delay that $1 billion. I understand there may be some concerns about the $3 billion in this bill even though that is money that will be planned; it will be several years before it will be made available. The money we’ve got, the $1 billion that’s already provided by law is available as soon as it comes in and I think it will go a long way in meeting the immediate needs of first responders.
So I hope that the Senate will really not persevere with this amendment. I understand his concerns and we share his concerns over the use of money.