U.S. officials push for public safety airwave priority

U.S. government agencies and commercial critical infrastructure providers such as utilities and railroads believe enhanced national security requirements following last year’s terrorist attacks should serve as a litmus test of any reallocation of limited radio frequency spectrum resources.

Speakers at the Spectrum Summit, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce last week, emphasized the post-Sept. 11 world, saying it would dictate a change in the federal spectrum policies of the past decade. That decade was marked by the sale of large portions of the U.S. government spectrum to commercial wireless carriers.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration manages portions of the spectrum allocated to federal users, while the Federal Communications Commission manages the spectrum used by commercial interests, such as cellular carriers. Together the two agencies oversee 43 classes of services, from AM broadcast radio to mobile satellite systems, allocated among 1,000 radio frequency bands from 300 KHz to 300 GHz.

The most valuable portion of that spectrum in terms of range, reach, propagation and potential throughput lies above the AM broadcast band and below 3 GHz. Large portions of that valuable real estate are already occupied by television broadcasters, commercial fixed and mobile wireless services and federal users. The Defense Department holds the largest piece of federal spectrum, which is being hungrily eyed by the cellular telephone industry for next-generation services.

Congress and the FCC in the past have backed the sale of federal frequencies to provide commercial wireless companies with the spectrum they need for business. But at the summit federal, state and local officials, as well as electric, gas and water utility executives, said a shift in national priorities in the past year should lead to a re-evaluation of past policies.

Jill Lyon, general counsel of the United Telecom Council, a trade group that handles wireless issues for the utilities industry, said the events of the last year “have made major changes in the way we look” at the allocation of spectrum. Besides focusing on public safety, she said, federal regulators should pay attention to the needs of “critical infrastructure industries,” which use the spectrum to manage their widespread physical plants.

Railroads, which collectively field a total of 300,000 two-way radios, also have pressing safety-related spectrum requirements, according to Thomas Keller, counsel for the Association of American Railroads. The National Transportation Safety Board has placed “positive train control,” which will use radio frequencies to allow remote management and operation of trains, “on its Top 10 wish list,” said Keller.

Julio Murphy, a Treasury Department official who co-chairs the Public Safety Wireless Network, said the increased emphasis on national security requires that any new spectrum allocation be done “with a public safety filter in front of everything else.” Before the FCC and the NTIA make any spectrum decisions, Murphy said, they need to ask: “Does it protect the critical infrastructure? Does it enhance public safety?”

Steven Price, deputy assistant secretary of defense for spectrum space and sensors, said his department views spectrum “as our lifeblood,” and over the past few years it has been siphoned off to commercial wireless companies. Any plans to shift more spectrum from the Defense Department to the private sector should consider “the first national priority, [DOD’s] constitutional mission to protect national security,” Price said.

Nancy Jesuale, director of communications and networking for the city of Portland, Ore., said that the Portland Police Department has experienced severe interference problems from a commercial, mobile wireless system operated by Reston, Va.-based Nextel Communications Inc. In her view, the spectrum battle comes down to a simple issue: “Is it better to serve ‘soccer moms’ making a wireless phone call or provide secure communications to public safety agencies en-route to save ‘a burning baby?'”

Diane Cornell, vice-president of regulatory affairs for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a Washington-based industry trade group, suggested that public safety organizations could satisfy their wireless communications needs – and help reduce the spectrum crunch – by contracting out to commercial providers.

That, Cornell said, would help both government users and commercial ventures meet their different needs with the scarce spectrum resources available.