Ex-Commerce officials urge interoperability action

Two former top Commerce Department officials on Thursday recommended steps that the regulatory agencies and the incoming Democratic Congress can take to improve emergency communications across jurisdictions.

During a conference call with reporters, Larry Irving, a Democrat who ran the National Telecommunications and Information Administration under former President Bill Clinton, and Michael Gallagher, a Republican who served in the same post under President Bush, said they have put their political differences aside because lives are at stake.

"We have come together in a bipartisan manner because we've both had experiences during our government lives with what happens when you don't have interoperable networks," said Irving, who now heads his own telecom consulting firm. "We know there's going to be more natural disasters in the country."

He added that "brave" responders are taking big risks because they lack the tools they need.

"We have a significant challenge to make sure public-safety organizations can speak to one another," added Gallagher, a partner in the Washington office of the Perkins Coie law firm. He said emergency responders need to communicate not just through voice communications but also via the newest wireless text gadgets and Internet-based technologies.

NTIA advises the White House on telecom policy, including spectrum issues.

Incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., recently said that improving the interoperability of rescue personnel will be among his top priorities next year. Bolstering emergency communications has been a priority for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks highlighted flaws in the system.

In a new "white paper," Irving and Gallagher outlined six steps that Congress can take to address the situation. The proposals include on-time completion of the transition to digital television in February 2009, which would free 24 megahertz of spectrum for public-safety networks. The FCC should ensure that the spectrum is used for cutting-edge technologies, they said.

Another potential benefit of the transition could be the auctioning of 60 MHz to the private sector. Portions of the proceeds, expected to be in the billions of dollars, have been earmarked for grants to emergency responders.

The former NTIA chiefs also called upon the Homeland Security Department to expedite the creation of a national interoperability plan that Congress has mandated.

Additional recommendations include better cooperation among state and local governments to design, build and operate interoperable networks and rapid implementation of new laws and regulations designed to bolster the nation's emergency alert system.

While more than $2 billion in federal funding has been appropriated for interoperable communications in recent years, more funding is needed, they said.

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