by Juan Otero, National League of Cities
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The National League of Cities
is working to support the Homeland Emergency Response Operations (HERO) Act, legislation that would set a firm Dec. 31, 2006, deadline for return of much needed public safety frequencies.
"The strengthening of our nation's public safety communications infrastructure has never been more important to our nation's security," said NLC President John DeStefano, mayor of New Haven, Conn. "The current capabilities of law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services, disaster relief and other emergency personnel remain severely restricted by the limited amount of spectrum allocated for public safety purposes. It is time for Congress to close this major gap in homeland security and pass the HERO Act."
DeStefano urged local officials to contact their members of Congress and encourage them to support the HERO Act (HR 1425) as an important part of supporting first responders and securing the safety of America's cities and towns.
During a recent hearing on the spectrum needs of emergency first responders, Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) testified on behalf of the legislation. NLC has aggressively supported the HERO Act in the 108th Congress.
The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 required the FCC to reallocate 24 megahertz of spectrum in the upper portion of the 700 MHz band (channels 60-69) for public safety use. But under the digital TV (DTV) transition deadlines established by Congress, broadcasters don't have to return their analog channels until Dec. 31, 2006, or until 85 percent of the households in their markets are capable of receiving digital signals.
House sponsors of the HERO Act that would free analog broadcast spectrum criticized broadcasters for their slow transition to digital television.
"We should work with the broadcasters, but this should be our priority," said Weldon, a former volunteer fire chief who founded the Congressional Fire Services Caucus. "I am so disgusted with the public broadcasting industry. They've had ample time to move away from their existing structure."
Harman agreed that Congress should work to help broadcasters that are "disadvantaged" by having to clear the public safety channels early.
But she noted the possibility of more terrorist attacks in the United States and said, "I don't think we have a day to lose."
Vincent R. Stile, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, testified on behalf of the National Association of Counties and several other local government organizations for the Dec. 31, 2006, deadline and increased funding for public safety equipment.
While saying they were sympathetic to the spectrum needs of public safety agencies, several members of a House subcommittee said they were reluctant to set the Dec. 31, 2006, deadline for TV broadcasters to return 700 megahertz band analog frequencies that have been reallocated for public safety use.
They cited the backlash they could face from consumers who can't yet receive digital signals and would lose their analog transmissions.
But other lawmakers said that it was time to get tough with broadcasters and force them to return their channels. For their part, public safety leaders and a major vendor asked Congress to set a firm deadline for return of their analog channels and allocate funding so agencies could upgrade their equipment, citing increased homeland security demands and tighter state and local funding.
Several members of the subcommittee, including Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), its chair, and W.J. (Billy) Tauzin (R-La.), chair of Energy and Commerce Committee, noted that many lawmakers feared that some viewers would be left with no TV signals if analog channels disappeared too soon.
But Upton said the panel would be "prepared to legislate" a solution if stakeholders in the DTV transition were unable to resolve issues that were thwarting deployment.
Tauzin agreed that freeing up the public safety channels was "not as easy as it might sound." He said he would feel more comfortable with setting a fixed deadline if consumers bought more digital TV sets or set-top boxes that allowed them to receive digital signals. If consumers don't upgrade their TV sets and lose their analog signals, "it will be on our neck," Tauzin said.
Members of the House also discussed proposals for reducing interference and creating more spectrum. Representative Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said that while there was a need for more spectrum for public safety, federal funding to localities for interoperable equipment undoubtedly would be needed.
Representative Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said he was working with Stupak and Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) on legislation that would create a trust fund to help localities deploy interoperable communications equipment.