Panel gets static on how to develop first responder system

A House Homeland Security subcommittee on Tuesday heard widespread agreement on the need for a nationwide communications system that will allow local, state and national first-responders to share information swiftly and seamlessly with each other in an emergency. But the panel heard considerable disagreement on how to achieve that.

The biggest gap appeared between the Federal Communications Commission and the Homeland Security Department, which are committed to developing a government-commercial partnership to build the system, and officials from well-resourced local jurisdictions and others who are concerned that the proposed network would interfere with their systems.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Emergency Preparedness Subcommittee Chairman Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, and ranking member Charles Dent, R-Pa., appeared skeptical that the national proposal would serve their more rural constituencies.

FCC had tried to auction off part of the 700 megahertz spectrum to a commercial entity to obtain the funds and the expertise to develop the public sector emergency communications network alongside the private system. But the sole bid came in at about half the $1.33 billion minimum the commission set.

Derek Poarch, chief of the FCC Homeland Security Bureau, said the commission was preparing a draft proposal for a second auction, which he believed would be more attractive to the commercial sector.

That proposal would lower the threshold bid to $750 million, allow firms to bid for regional coverage and would relax some of the technical requirements of the first offer, Poarch said. It also would extend the license for the spectrum from 10 to 15 years, he said.

The draft proposal is to be reviewed by the FCC Sept. 25.

Chris Essid, director of emergency communications at Homeland Security, supported the plan, calling it essential to the interoperability of first responders' communications.

Although Thompson expressed his support for the public-private partnership, he questioned Poarch and Essid on how the proposal would cover rural areas. Essid said the plan would require coverage for every county but acknowledged that coverage might come slower to thinly populated areas.

Cuellar questioned how the proposal would coordinate with existing local and regional emergency communications systems, and was assured the plan was not to replace current systems but to make them compatible with the national system.

Essid said it would be prohibitively expensive and too slow to replace all the existing radios, so the proposal was to create "a system of systems" integrating current and new equipment.

Poarch noted that current communications systems were designed mainly to handle voice but the new national technology would allow them to transmit video and data.

LeRoy Carlson, chairman of Cellular Communications, supported the proposal for bids for regional coverage, saying that was something his firm could handle.

But Charles Dowd, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department, and Robert LeGrande, the former chief technology officer for Washington, D.C., complained that the current FCC plan could disrupt their already well-established communications systems.

"The national model, in our view, will not work," Dowd said, adding that his view was shared by all the major cities he had talked to. He proposed allowing New York to use the 700 MHz spectrum to build its own broad band emergency communications system.

"What we're asking is, let's not rush into another auction to give away this best opportunity for a solution," Dowd said.

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