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Public Safety, Interoperability and the Transition to Digital Television

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Publication Date: June 2005

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL32622

Topic: Media, telecommunications, and information (Television)


Plans for the use of spectrum intended for wireless emergency communications and interoperability are enmeshed in the technical requirements and complex economic and policy issues that surround the planned transition to digital television (DTV) in the United States. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate 24 MHZ of spectrum at 700 MHZ to public safety, without providing a hard deadline for the transfer. The channels designated for public safety are among those currently held by TV broadcasters.

The 9/11 Commission Report recommended in 2004 that "Congress should support pending legislation which provides for the expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes." This was a reference to the Homeland Emergency Response Operations Act, or HERO Act introduced by Representative Jane Harman which would have required the FCC to "take all actions necessary to complete assignments" for these channels so that operations could begin no later than January 1, 2007, in line with the deadline originally envisioned for the completion of the transition to DTV for all affected channels. After the appearance of the Report, several bills resembling the HERO Act were introduced. Steps to release the spectrum were included in both the key House (H.R. 10) and Senate (S.2845) versions of the bills proposed to respond to the 9/11 Commission. The Senate version included language that would have released the needed channels by the end of 2007. The House version and the final Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-458) expressed the preference that the transition to digital television be considered in its entirety so as not to disadvantage the estimated 75 broadcasting stations that would have been affected almost immediately under the Senate version. Language in the act conveys the sense of Congress that the first session of the 109th Congress must act to establish a comprehensive approach to the timely return of spectrum and that any delay in doing this will delay planning by the public safety sector. There are also provisions for studies that could provide the foundation for achieving significant improvements in public safety communications. Against a background of ongoing debate about spectrum availability and the transition to DTV, the HERO Act has been reintroduced in the 109th Congress (H.R. 1646, Representative Harman).

This report summarizes issues relevant to the clearing of the frequencies, or channels, designated for public safety.