In Search of Spectrum

Spectrum auctions may soon leave public safety agencies with a busy signal.

by / September 30, 1996
A lone police officer in Vancouver, Wash., detained a shooting suspect at a local park and radioed for backup. But the police channels were jammed with radio traffic, and the officer's call never arrived. Luckily, another officer heard the location before the arresting officer went off the air, and arrived to provide backup.

This incident last year prompted Vancouver City Councilmember Pat Jollota, a former dispatcher, to createa solution to the crowded public safety channels in her community. But it was costly.

The city's stopgap measure was to borrow $2 million from a water and sewer fund to purchase some new communications equipment and to bounce signals off a repeater in nearby Portland, Ore., in a less-crowded frequency range.

This anecdote illustrates a common problem faced by public safety communications. As more public safety vehicles -- outfitted with more communications equipment -- are put on the street , the narrow bands used by police cars, ambulances and fire engines are becoming crowded, especially in urban areas.

When this happens, a local government can try to get more frequencies assigned by the federal government. But this is becoming more difficult as cellular telephones, beepers and other civilian communications applications take over the airways.

Public safety should have a particular part of the spectrum set aside for use by ambulances, police and fire departments, assert local government and public safety advocates. Without this allocation, it could become more difficult for local public safety agencies to acquire radio frequencies and establish interoperability between agencies. It could also hinder effective use of emerging applications, such as sending archived mug shots or fingerprints to a patrol car.

Spectrum is the finite space that contains all radio, television and microwave frequencies. Different types of signals are allocated certain parts of the spectrum, with television using a different allocation than beepers, for example. The FCC assigns frequencies within these allocations, and equipment is manufactured to work within the assigned areas of the spectrum.

The FM radio station you listen to (unless it's a "pirate" station) has an FCC license to broadcast at a given power using a particular frequency within the FM radio allocation.

Telecommunications providers used to be assigned frequency by the FCC. But that changed with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which authorized the FCC to use competitive bidding to award licenses in some areas of the spectrum, with the proceeds earmarked for deficit reduction. By early this year, more than $9 billion had been raised through auctions from hundreds of new licenses for new wireless services.

The problem is that public safety agencies, which have generally not had much space allocated over the years, do not have the financial resources to compete in auctions against the private sector.

As radio sections of the spectrum become more crowded, especially in urban areas, there is concern that too much space could be auctioned off, leaving public safety without sufficient room both now and in the future.

When Congress voted in 1993 to allow spectrum auctions, it ordered a report with recommendations on spectrum allocations for public safety use. The Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC) was then formed, under the auspices of the FCC and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to study and make recommendations on what public safety's spectrum needs could be between now and 2010.

PSWAC has been working for about a year, and participants have included the FBI director, a New York City deputy police commissioner, representatives from the military and the private sector. The commission's report and recommendations, which took a year to develop, were scheduled to be released in September and should be on the Internet at or available from the FCC.

The report becomes part of the FCC's process to allocate spectrum for public safety. A docket has been opened on the matter (WT Docket 96-86) and comments were taken until Sept. 20. Reply comments on submissions are being taken until Oct. 18, but this period could be extended. The commission intends to act on the issue by the end of the year, said Tom Stanley, an FCC spectrum advisor.

A good way for public safety advocates to get involved is through trade organizations participating in the process, such as the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officers (APCO) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The National League of Cities is also active in the process.

Interviewed before the final report was released, PSWAC chair Phil Verveer, a Washington, D.C., telecommunications attorney, said the group was hoping to secure spectrum between what is now television channels 60 through 69.
This range is used by only about 100 stations nationwide, including Boston's Channel 69, which broadcasts the region's Red Sox games.

The frequencies of this range are between about 706 megahertz and 806 megahertz, just below a spectrum area used for mobile communications. But Verveer said that the committee doesn't expect public safety to get all of that from the FCC. "It would be hard for them to accommodate 100 megs," he said. If just four of those channels are set aside the current public safety allocation of 23 megahertz scattered across the spectrum would be doubled, he said. There are other possibilities being looked at, including some Defense Department bands.

The commission's preference is to find public safety frequencies in the megahertz range, but this is difficult because that area is crowded, said David Wye, a technical advisor in the FCC's Wireless Division working on the issue. "We want to find one area for interoperability."

Public safety agencies around the country are scattered across the spectrum, making interoperability between agencies, and even within large ones, difficult and sometimes impossible. A solution is to have a space on the spectrum allocation for interoperability.

If public safety is eventually allocated spectrum space which is different from what a local jurisdiction currently uses, locals won't necessarily have to give up current space and move to a new frequency. But when expanding or upgrading a communications system, a local agency could move into the allocated range. It would also be able to get equipment in the allocated area for interoperability purposes.

This could help governments save money, too. When a local agency gets a space on the spectrum, manufacturers sell equipment made to work in those frequencies. But if there is a common allocation, then equipment such as radios may not be as expensive because fewer would need to be customized by manufacturers.

"It would be wonderful if we had the same spectrum across the country," said Linda L. Bunker, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department Emergency Command Control Communications System Division. "There could be a lot of economies of scale realized."

But until public safety allocations and interoperability are established by the federal government, local agencies will probably continue to struggle with clogged airways. When radio users begin to step on each other because too many people are on the same frequencies, agencies try to get more space or use more channels to split up the air traffic. A police department may divide its radio channels into sectors to deal with growing numbers of users, for example.

It costs money to do all of this, because new radios and other equipment have to be purchased, sometimes for the entire force.

Agencies can even be pushed off frequencies. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, had to move its microwave communications because that portion of the spectrum was auctioned as PCS licenses
last year by the FCC. Los Angeles is also having a difficult time finding spectrum. "We have a tremendous problem enhancing and enlarging," said Bunker. "We've been going all over the spectrum."

Vancouver has some of the same problems with space, and bouncing its communications off Portland's repeater is only a temporary solution. A $14 million plan for the city and Clark County, Wash., to switch communications to a different frequency and get new radios for fire, police and other vehicles was being considered by local government bodies. Funding could come from a bond issue which may be put on this November's ballot.

But it will be difficult to get voter approval for the borrowing, Councilmember Jollota said, adding that part of the problem is that people can't see or touch what they would be voting to spend money on. "Traditionally, we don't even pass park bond issues," she said.


Proposed Auctions
Spur Local Reaction
The public safety community and local government advocates were upset this summer by congressional and administration proposals to auction spectrum space to pay for tax credits and cuts before public safety needs were addressed.

Shortly before leaving the Senate to campaign for president, Bob Dole proposed repealing some federal gas taxes and making up the revenue by auctioning some spectrum space. President Clinton proposed selling spectrum as a way to pay for a tax deduction for some college expenses. Federal law requires that revenue reductions, such as tax cuts, must be balanced either by reducing spending or increasing revenue elsewhere.

The National League of Cities and International Association of Chiefs of Police protested the proposals. "We are concerned that the proposed mechanism could interfere with emergency and public safety communications and endanger the lives and safety of citizens," wrote NLC President and Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Greg Lashutka, in a letter to Congress members.

Queries as to why spectrum auctions were chosen by Clinton and Dole to pay for tax reductions were not fully answered. Lawrence Haas, associate director for communications at the Office of Management and Budget, said that spectrum auctions were picked because "the president thought that this was the best option, and that is why he chose it." Haas would not elaborate on what Clinton's other choices were in paying for the tax credits.

The Dole presidential campaign referred Government Technology to Sen. Trent Lott, who was elected Senate majority leader when Dole resigned. Lott's office did not respond to messages asking why spectrum auctions were chosen to pay for the gas tax repeal, and several calls to the office of Rep. Andrea Seastrand, who authored the House version of the bill, were not returned. *

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