WASHINGTON-“This is not an inscrutable, hard-to-figure-out issue,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at a hearing last week to discuss problems with his proposed Law Enforcement and Public Safety Telecommunications Empowerment Act. “It ain’t over ’til it’s over. Simply put, I want to make sure that public safety gets the spectrum it needs, quickly and definitively.”
McCain’s bill sets aside four channels within the disputed 60-69 broadcast range and also begins to address funding needs of public-safety entities. But even though all of the panelists testifying at last Thursday’s hearing agreed with the spirit of the measure, most had problems with the content.
Another member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), had his own opinion on McCain’s bill, which was introduced last February. “I’m not sure that [the bill] doesn’t go a few steps too far but we can work that out.” He added that spectrum allocation was being driven “more by cash than by need,” and that despite public safety’s known need for more capacity, broadcasters needed to be protected, too.
“We can accommodate all interests if we get rid of budget-driven allocations,” Burns concluded.
Half of the panel discussion focused on spectrum and half on money. According to former Private Radio Bureau chief Ralph Haller, who now heads consulting firm Fox Ridge Communications, the bill “does not meet the immediate needs of the public-safety community and it cannot if it continues to focus solely on channels 60-69. While channels 60-69 may yield a long-term solution for public safety, they yield very little in the short term for public-safety needs or auction revenue.” Haller also believes that not all jurisdictions need an additional 24 megahertz of spectrum for public safety, a belief shot down by Mark Schwartz, president of the National League of Cities, who said, “Even small communities need 24 megahertz to perform advanced things like electronic fingerprinting. We need 24 megahertz now and 70 megahertz in the future.”
Haller suggested Congress reallocate government-controlled spectrum in the 225 MHz-400 MHz range. “Interestingly, much of that spectrum is used to duplicate transmissions of the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control channels, a complete waste of valuable spectrum,” he said. The 380 MHz-400 MHz band also is being considered by the international community as a global common band for public safety, he added.
Bruce Franca, deputy chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Office of Engineering and Technology, touted the commission’s digital television reallocation plan as being superior to McCain’s and already in the works. “In the first phase, channels 60-69 will be recovered almost immediately,” he said, adding that phase two of the recovery, several years hence, will provide channels for expansion.
Speaking against any allocation that would involve the UHF channels was Dr. Charles Jackson of Washington, D.C.-based Strategic Policy Research, who spoke on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters. “No one has done the analysis needed to show that [broadcast] translators can be accommodated if channels 60-69 become unavailable,” he said. Jackson also mentioned a recent study he completed that showed that recovered spectrum in the top 10 markets would only be about 12 megahertz, nowhere near the 24 megahertz asked for by the public-safety community. He, like Franca, agreed with the FCC’s allocation plan over that of McCain’s, saying, “I believe it is wrong to tie the FCC’s hands the way I read the bill as doing.”