Police and firefighters now must wait three more years for vital extra spectrum while broadcasters sluggishly exit the public airwaves.

In late December 2005, the House and Senate agreed to extend broadcasters' digital transmission switchover deadline from Dec. 31, 2006 to Feb. 17, 2009, acknowledging that the majority would certainly miss the prior deadline. The legislation was part of a $40 billion deficit reduction bill. Federal lawmakers are eager to collect revenue estimated at more than $10 billion from auctioning part of the 408 MHz TV spectrum band to telecommunications companies.

Firefighters, police and other emergency first responders will receive 24 MHz of spectrum to improve communications, especially needed for large-scale rescues. They frequently crowded each other on the airwaves during the 9/11 rescue and Hurricane Katrina.

First Responders Wait

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made a failed attempt in November 2005 to move the digital TV deadline up to 2008.

"Here we are [for] our first responders, the brave men and women who put their lives on the line in defense of the lives of their fellow citizens, who have already given their lives, who have performed so magnificently, who want to be able to talk to each other, who want the spectrum freed up," McCain said on the Senate floor. "And what do we do here in Congress? We delay it as long as possible. It is disgraceful conduct on our part."

Yucel Ors, spokesman for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, said the first responders' 24 MHz of spectrum would allow them interoperability channels, enabling communications systems from multiple responder jurisdictions to interact with each other.

Interoperability channels also would allow firefighters to communicate with police, making a more cohesive operation between types of rescuers.

"There are designated interoperability channels within the 24 MHz, so as more systems fill up, interoperability becomes easier when you're sending first responders to the scene from other agencies, if they have 700 or 800 radios," Ors said.

Ron Haraseth, director of APCO International's automated frequency coordination division, said the added spectrum for first responders would facilitate many technology upgrades.

"There are a lot of digital things we can do that we haven't been able to do in public safety, because we haven't had any bandwidth to apply any of [them to] the exiting land mobile radio band," he said, adding that the bandwidth-crowding problems are dire for responders in urban areas.

"There are some places where all the frequency bands are totally congested -- New York, New Jersey, the major cities anywhere in the country," he said. "It is almost impossible to find any usable channel in any of those areas."

The crowding comes from hundreds of responders using the bandwidth at any given time, and the higher number of TV broadcasters typically found on the bandwidth in metropolitan areas.

Congress first promised to shift 24 MHz from broadcasters to first responders with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but held that a jurisdiction couldn't receive it until 85 percent of viewers within its city owned digital TVs.

"We've had the 24 MHz allocation for several years now, but we can't access it, because they still have TV stations on it. That's why we've been so adamant about pushing for a definite deadline [to] transition [broadcasters] off those channels," Haraseth said.

The new 2009 deadline eliminates the 85 percent digital TV requirement by subsidizing digital converters.

Even when first responders get their 24 MHz of spectrum, they'll face a separate battle over funding the more advanced communication systems designed to take advantage of the new airspace.

Haraseth said the Department of Homeland Security is offering grants to jurisdictions that purchase systems capable of using interoperability channels. Still, the funds for purchasing these systems mostly come from local governments. Policymakers typically overlook communication system purchases as basic, required steps

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.