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Emergency Communications: Policy Options at a Crossroads

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Wireless communications capacity and capability provide essential support to emergency workers. First responders, state, local, tribal and federal emergency officials, utility workers, ambulance drivers, hospital personnel, forest fire fighters, federal law enforcement agents, the National Guard, and members of all branches of the military are among those who might respond to an emergency and need to be equipped to communicate among themselves and with each other.

The management of spectrum that carries wireless communications for public safety and homeland security has emerged as a time-critical policy issue for the 110th Congress due largely to several recent actions by Congress and the Administration, some with near-term deadlines.

Congress has mandated that an important band of spectrum be released for public safety use not later than February 18, 2009 (Deficit Reduction Act, P.L. 109171, Sec. 3002). Congress has also mandated that a billion-dollar fund for public safety communications, created by the Deficit Reduction Act, be fully distributed by the end of FY2007 (S. 2653). As part of the Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2007, Congress put in place a number of requirements for an Office of Emergency Communications that, among other objectives, is to work with community, state and regional representatives to develop a national emergency communications capability (P.L. 109-295, Title VI, Subtitle D). Funding for part of this effort would be authorized as part of H.R. 1 (Representative Thompson).

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is moving forward with the Presidential Spectrum Policy Initiative planning process which includes evaluating spectrum use for public safety and homeland security. The Spectrum Advisory Committee created for this effort has announced that it will study several advanced systems operated by public safety agencies that might serve as a model for designing a national system.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in December 2006, announced a proposed rulemaking for a plan to provide a national emergency communications network using the spectrum band assigned by Congress to public safety, noted above. At the core of the FCC proposal is the appointment of a notfor-profit entity to administer access to the designated spectrum and to design a network that would be shared by public safety and commercial users.

These various initiatives appear to be moving in different directions. Congress may opt to establish policies for spectrum management that could require other approaches or objectives by the various agencies and departments involved.

This report will be updated.