The Bush administration shows signs of internal division over a $1 billion public-safety wireless interoperability grant program, with implementation delays undercutting post-9/11efforts to improve communications among first responders and attracting increased oversight by Congress.
The House Homeland Security Committee wants the administration to explain why the $1 billion grant program continues to stall. House Homeland Security Committee leaders are particularly alarmed by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s admission on Capitol Hill that his department and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will not meet a Sept. 30 deadline for dispersing first-responder funds to cities and states.
Annoyed at NTIA
In a letter to Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and ranking member Peter King (R-N.Y.) said they were especially annoyed by the lack of responsiveness at NTIA.
“Last June, the committee staff was briefed by representatives of the NTIA and told that a MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security was forthcoming and would be completed by Sept. 30, 2006. To date, the MoU has not been completed and neither department has provided this committee with an explanation for the delay. After repeated requests, NTIA informed the committee staff on Feb. 1 that the Department of Commerce is still in the midst of ‘ongoing discussions’ with the Department of Homeland Security regarding the implementation of the program and adherence to the Sept. 30, 2007 deadline,” Thompson and King stated.
“The delay in the coordination of the grant program flies in the face of two acts of Congress and the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission,” added Thompson and King. “Meanwhile, first responders are left in limbo while federal agencies and departments delay on establishing the billion-dollar interoperability grant program.”
NTIA has taken a different tack from DHS, publicly refusing to associate itself with Chertoff’s view that the Sept. 30 benchmark will not be met.
“NTIA will respond to the letter from Congress about the Public Safety Interoperable Communications grant program soon,” said NTIA spokesman Todd Sedmak. “We recently told Congress that NTIA expects to make grant awards no later than Sept. 30, 2007, as required by the Call Home Act of 2006.”
When pressed on whether NTIA is privately lobbying Congress to extend that deadline, Sedmak responded, “No.”
DHS, which has awarded nearly $3 billion in interoperability grants but admits most of the nation’s public-safety agencies still lack that capability in significant measure, did not respond to a request for comment. However, the Thompson-King letter could provide some clue to possible sticking points thwarting the process for getting public-safety interoperability grants to first responders.
Is 700 MHz spectrum sticking point?
“We understand that there is uncertainty regarding the grant guidance that will accompany the $1 billion in interoperability funds. We are concerned that the guidance may limit the use of funds to the purchase of systems that operate only on the 700 MHz bandwidth, which is inappropriate and is not required by law,” Thompson and King stated. “As you are aware, many areas across the country have taken their own initiative and spent millions of dollars of their own funds to build interoperable systems using bandwidths other than 700 MHz. In some instances, 700 MHz systems do not provide interoperability due to dense urban growth or other local factors. These areas should not be prohibited from receiving grant funds.”
Thompson and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) are pushing legislation to give guidance to NTIA on public-safety interoperability grants, with the latter’s bill approved by full committee last week.
Thompson and King directed Chertoff and Gutierrez to provide answers to several questions by Monday, the same day Chertoff pledged to have the MOU between DHS and Commerce completed. Chertoff also has vowed to have public-safety interoperability in place throughout the country by the end of 2008.
The apparent rift in the Bush administration on NTIA’s interoperability grant program is playing out as public-safety groups battle cellphone and tech firms over a plan by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to redirect half of the auction-bound 60 megahertz at 700 MHz for a national public-safety broadband network.
NTIA head John Kneuer has been dogged by questions about interoperability and other grant programs dating back to his Senate confirmation hearing last September.
In addition to incurring the wrath of the House Homeland Security Committee, NTIA’s troubles are not going unnoticed by the House Commerce subcommittee on investigations and oversight.
“On 9/11, 121 firefighters lost their lives because their radios were not interoperable and they could not be warned to escape from the World Trade Center tower before it collapsed. Since 9/11, I have been fighting for a well-administered, stand-alone grant program at NTIA to help local communities develop interoperable communications,” said subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). “I supported establishment of the $1 billion grant program at NTIA as it was based on legislation I introduced the last few Congresses. .The House Energy and Commerce Committee must exercise careful oversight so that these grants are awarded appropriately. I recently met with administrator Kneuer to express my concerns. As chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, I will continue to closely monitor progress on the interoperability grant program.”