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Chertoff pledges to work with Congress on public-safety spectrum

WASHINGTON-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he would cooperate with Congress if the new, Democratic-controlled House and Senate pursue legislation to increase the supply of public-safety spectrum. Chertoff acknowledged federal, state and local first responders must not only be able to talk with one other during emergencies but also need to share bandwidth-hogging data and video communications.
“Let me, for the public, try to make clear that the discussion that’s being had about this greater bandwidth reflects the fact that people are talking not only now about voice communication-which is, of course, what was the issue on 9/11-but video communication and data communication, which requires much more bandwidth,” said Chertoff in a question-and-answer session with reporters. Chertoff was on hand for the release of a new report showing that only a handful of U.S. cities and metropolitan areas have implemented completely interoperable public-safety communications.
“Obviously, the question of how one achieves that greater capability affects our department. It also affects other agencies of the executive branch. And we’re very interested, obviously, in working with Congress, if there’s a proposed piece of legislation, to look at that and evaluate what makes the most sense,” Chertoff said. “I can’t give you an answer in the abstract based on a theoretical piece of legislation, but of course we’re always interested in specific proposals that Congress may have to move forward on this very important issue.”
Chertoff’s input could prove pivotal for Cyren Call Communications Corp. and some public-safety agencies. Cyren Call and others are working to find lawmakers that will sponsor legislation to reallocate half of the auction-bound 60 megahertz at 700 MHz for public-safety communications. The Federal Communications Commission last year shot down the idea, concluding that legislation is required for such a redistribution of spectrum otherwise worth billions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury. At the same time, the FCC last month proposed to designate half of an already-established 24 megahertz public-safety frequency block for a national broadband licensee that would serve police, firefighters, medics and others.
Chertoff said progress has been made in achieving interoperable public-safety communications, but more needs to be done.
“The 9/11 Commission identified interoperable communications as a major challenge and many communities listened by taking the sometimes difficult steps necessary to close communication gaps among first responders,” said Chertoff. “Their experience proves that basic interoperability at the command level is achievable. We’re committed to making this a priority in every major urban area, and we’ll continue to push for closing these gaps by the end of 2008.”
The continued lack of full-fledged public-safety interoperability throughout the nation comes even as lawmakers put billions of dollars toward interoperable communications. The Department of Homeland Security has awarded nearly $3 billion in public-safety interoperability grants since 2003.
Meantime, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department unit that advises the White House on telecom policy, has yet to begin making public-safety interoperability grants from a separate $1 billion earmark enacted into law last year. Before concluding business for the year, lawmakers passed a bill requiring NTIA to have the $1 billion grant money spent by Sept. 30, 2007.

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