Ten years later and still no solution

September 13, 2011


 “Ten years later and still no solution”

 The Hill Op-Ed

By: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas)

America saw the bravery and dedication of our country’s first responders 10 years ago when terrorism struck. The same courage has been exhibited every day since 9/11 by police, firefighters and other emergency personnel who continue to face danger in order to protect us.

Robust and reliable communications is one of the most important tools these brave men and women use to keep us safe.  Unfortunately, the inability of first responders to communicate with each other led to needless loss of life on Sept. 11.  The 9/11 Commission made resolution of this problem a key recommendation in their report to Congress.  They urged Congress to make additional radio spectrum available for public safety purposes to help improve radio interoperability. 

Yet, 10 years later, that recommendation remains unfulfilled, and a lack of interoperability continues to hamper the efforts of first responders today. 

We have all heard stories about responders resorting to hand-written notes passed across rubble piles during disasters because their devices are incapable of communicating with other responders. As emergency personnel rush to protect lives and property during hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, terrorist attacks and other emergency situations, it is unconscionable that they have to do so with decades-old technology and subpar connectivity.

Today, America leads the world in technological capabilities. Every corner coffee shop advertises free Wi-Fi and teenagers have smartphones, yet our police and firefighters are forced to use outdated communications in their duties. This is unacceptable, and the time has come for our public service networks to have parity with commercial offerings.

To rectify this situation, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and I introduced the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act, S. 911, which provides America’s first responders with the dedicated spectrum and funding necessary to deploy an interoperable wireless broadband network for public safety use. It will help also to create new jobs and reduce the deficit. Our bill received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate Commerce Committee and has the broad bipartisan support of numerous governors, mayors, and public safety organizations across the country. 

In particular, S. 911 would allocate the critical D Block of spectrum to public safety so they have sufficient bandwidth to meet current and future wireless broadband needs. Some people argue that this spectrum band should be auctioned for commercial use, but such an approach is pennywise and pound-foolish.  This legislation would auction other spectrum blocks, contributing an estimated $6.5 billion to debt reduction. We are confident, however, that number will increase significantly with further modifications to S. 911.

Just as demand for spectrum in the commercial sector is increasing, public safety’s wireless broadband needs are going to grow rapidly over the next decade, exhausting the capacity of their current spectrum supply. Studies show that without the D Block, police and firefighters will struggle to meet even day-to-day community public safety challenges like bus crashes, apartment building fires, bank robberies, coal mine collapses and multicar accidents. If everyday incidents will overload public safety broadband networks without the D Block, how can first responders be expected to communicate during catastrophic emergencies like another terrorist attack or large natural disaster?

S. 911 addresses the wireless industry’s urgent need for more bandwidth by reallocating hundreds of megahertz of additional spectrum for mobile broadband purposes. The Congressional Budget Office has said that our bill would be completely paid for by spectrum auction proceeds and would actually bring in billions of dollars for deficit reduction. 

Studies indicate also that pumping additional spectrum into the marketplace will spur massive private sector investment, generating hundreds of thousands of new jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in new economic activity. With unemployment above 9 percent, this is exactly the kind of job-creating boost that our economy needs right now. 

This critical legislation can create new jobs, grow the economy, reduce our massive fiscal deficit and provide first responders with the tools they need to make every American safer. Working in a bipartisan fashion to enact such legislation is the sort of leadership that Americans desperately want from Congress today.  America’s first responders face danger on our behalf without hesitation; they surely deserve Congress’s best efforts in return.

Hutchison is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.