In an exclusive interview with Firehouse® Magazine, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Associate Attorney General Raymond C. Fisher answer the questions America's first responders are asking about two important issues - our preparedness for domestic terrorism and the allocation of radio...
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Exactly how this spectrum will be assigned is up to the FCC. However, I think it is safe to assume that in many areas of the country, the availability of the additional 24 MHz will result in additional channels for dispatching and on-scene use. This, of course, assumes that a given public safety agency has or is developing a system capable of operation on that band.
When Congress passed the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which provided for the 24 MHz, however, there were provisions inserted which could delay the availability of the 24 MHz in many areas of the country. Analog television stations currently occupy this spectrum in certain, primarily urban, markets. Under the provisions of the Balanced Budget Act, the television broadcasters will be able to continue to broadcast on those analog channels, in addition to the digital channels they have been given, until the penetration of digital television technology reaches an 85% threshold. In the affected markets, this spectrum will not actually be available to public safety until that threshold is reached. This may delay the availability of this spectrum indefinitely.
Was the additional use of spectrum on the 764-806 band designed specifically to allow police, fire, EMS and other government agencies to interact on major incidents or disasters, not for the day-to-day operations? How do we address those needs?
FISHER: Again, the FCC is the arbiter of exactly how the 24 MHz will be used. In its initial notice on the rule making for the 24 MHz there was strong indication that the FCC was looking at providing a significant amount of the spectrum for interoperability purposes. I would anticipate that the commission will account for needs related both to first responder interoperability during critical incidents and day-to-day interoperability.
Interoperability is one issue that is at the top of the Department of Justice's list. We have a great need to interoperate with state and local public safety agencies. As one example, it is not unusual for us to have only one or two agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency or the FBI assigned to a very large geographic area. These agents, of necessity, must rely greatly on the support of state and local public safety agencies to carry out their missions. We also regularly operate in task force settings with a diverse group of state and local law enforcement agencies. Of course, as a part of the broader public safety community, we are also very concerned about interoperability during the first hours after critical incidents. The Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center bombings are frequently cited examples where public safety communications systems were unable to adequately meet the important need for interoperability of first responders.
In the short term, the public safety community needs to concentrate on plans and procedures for dealing with such incidents. In the longer term, we need to continue to seek additional spectrum dedicated to interoperability adjacent to the bands on which we currently operate. We also need to examine participation in shared systems. Properly planned and implemented, shared systems could assist us in addressing all facets of interoperability.
The cost to public safety departments will be astronomical in converting existing equipment to bands they do not operate. Wouldn't it be more logical and make more financial sense to find space on spectrum bands from 150 to 170 MHz, where 65% of fire and 73% of law enforcement operate?
FISHER: The Department of Justice itself faces enormous cost as we convert our radio systems to narrowband operation in compliance with a federal mandate, so we are well aware of the costs of these systems. My understanding is that spectrum on the bands you reference is very heavily used. To make room for one user, another user must be relocated.
As part of the transition to digital television, the FCC was able to free 24 MHz of spectrum on the 764 to 806 MHz band for public safety without dislocating a significant number of other users. Unfortunately, building systems in the new spectrum will be expensive. This is one of the reasons that the attorney general coordinated the interagency working group investigating innovative mechanisms to fund public safety wireless communications.