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FCC TO ISSUE PUBLIC-SAFETY RULES FOR DTV SPECTRUM

WASHINGTON-The Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to approve service rules for using the public- safety spectrum in the 746-806 MHz band. This spectrum currently is used for analog television channels 63, 64, 68 and 69, but is slated to be turned over to public- safety agencies after completion of the transition to digital television.

In addition, the FCC is expected to release a further notice of proposed rule making in an attempt to answer additional public safety-spectrum questions. “The item on the agenda is not going to be the end of the story, although it is going to be a huge major accomplishment,” said Daniel Phythyon, chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau through a spokesperson.

The service rules for channels 63, 64, 68 and 69 will preclude public- safety agencies in some of the largest urban areas from using the spectrum because analog television stations still are broadcasting on those channels. There are 30 full-power television stations operating in those channels that must be protected until the conversion to DTV is complete.

Since analog channels 60-69 generally were unpopular for television broadcasts, these channels have been slated for public-safety use and auction prior to the complete DTV conversion; 24 megahertz will be used by public safety agencies, and 36 megahertz will be auctioned. The projected revenues from the auctioning of this spectrum helped balance the budget.

The conversion is set to be completed by 2006, but there is some doubt that will occur because broadcasters don’t have to relinquish their so-called analog spectrum until there is a penetration of at least 80 percent watching television via broadcasts over the digital spectrum.

The service rules for use of 63, 64, 68 and 69 have been on a fast track, with the FCC officially announcing proposed rules even before reallocating the spectrum. Those proposed rules caused some consternation in the public-safety community because the FCC suggested most of the spectrum be reserved for interoperability. Most agencies, however, said some but not all of the spectrum should be used for interoperability. Interoperability is a big issue in the public-safety community because when disasters occur, public-safety agencies find they cannot talk to each other.

The interoperability issue first became apparent when the Air Florida airplane crash occurred here in the early 1980s. On the same day, a Metro subway train also derailed, and with the ensuing chaos, rescue personnel found they could not talk to each other. The interoperability problem was discussed but not solved, and it occurred again in 1995 with the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

It is not just talking between local and state emergency and public-safety personnel that is important but, as evidenced in the Oklahoma City bombing example, communication between and among federal agencies and local and state entities. In this light, Commerce Secretary William Daley and Attorney General Janet Reno sent a letter last month urging that the FCC allow for interoperability between and among all public-safety agencies-including federal-in the service rules.

There is some hope the interoperability issue will be discussed in the document released Thursday, but it is unclear whether it will be handled in the order or the accompanying further notice of proposed rule making.

The FNPRM could deal with interoperability by asking for comment on a petition to allow public-safety agencies to have access to 3 megahertz in the 138-144 MHz band. This spectrum was identified by the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee as prime spectrum for public safety because some agencies already use this band. This spectrum band recently was approved for auction by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration as part of a congressional order that NTIA turn over 20 megahertz of federal spectrum for auction.

Because NTIA turned over the 138-144 MHz band on the expectation it would be auctioned, there is some confusion as to whether the FCC could unilaterally give this spectrum to public safety without congressional blessing. A petition filed by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council urged that the FCC allocate this spectrum for public safety but cautioned that congressional action may be necessary.

However, it seems congressional action may indeed not be necessary because of rules that call for public safety to be given a pre-eminent role over auction, said Lauren “Pete” Belvin, counsel to the communications subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “If there is a horse race between public safety and auctions, public safety wins,” Belvin said.

Public safety isn’t taking this for granted. “It is at least unclear,” said Robert Gurss, counsel of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. To gain the congressional blessing, the National League of Cities is working with Senator Pete V. Domenici’s office to get budget authority to use the spectrum instead of auctioning it.

Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico, is chairman of the Senate Committee on the Budget. Domenici has not yet committed to blessing the auction use by public safety, but NLC hopes to “renew efforts with Domenici in September,” said Frank Shafroth, NLC director of policy and federal relations.

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