We don't need to auction the D block spectrum for public safety

Remember the Digital TV transition? That was when we took advantage of improved technology by making all the broadcast TV stations give up their old, huge blocks of wireless spectrum, in exchange for receiving new, narrower blocks. By making the switch, we made room for new wireless technologies to bloom.


That room was split into 5 “blocks.” The C block, for example, was auctioned off to Verizon, who’s using it for 4G LTE wireless Internet. The B block has been bought up heavily by AT&T for the same use. However the D block went unsold. When it went up for auction, nobody even met the reserve price, so today the D block remains available.

After 9/11, we learned that we need to make more spectrum available to first responders. The D block would work great for that purpose. So why don’t we just hand out the D block to first responders across the country? You’d think that’d be obvious, but unfortunately some Republicans are hesitant.

Instead of just showing leadership and doing what we need to do for honest-to-goodness civil defense, we’re playing with cargo cult markets.

Here’s what the chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, told the Senate on the matter:

The inability of first responders to communicate with each other was a critical failure on 9/11. Incompatible and inadequate communications led to needless loss of life. To remedy this failure, the Commission recommended legislation to provide for the expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes.

To date, this recommendation languishes. We find this unacceptable, because quite literally lives are at stake. The political fight has been over whether to allocate spectrum directly to public safety or auction it off to wireless bidders who would then be required to pay for a nationwide public safety communications network.

Initially, some advances were made when 10 MHZ of radio spectrum were allocated to public safety. The overwhelming majority of our nation’s police chiefs and first responders, however, support the allocation of an additional 10 MHz of radio spectrum—the “D block”—to the existing dedicated public safety spectrum. Public safety agencies would be able to use the D block spectrum to build a nationwide interoperable broadband spectrum, allowing diverse agencies to communicate with each other, and supporting mission critical voice, video, text, and other data transmissions.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for allocating the D block spectrum to public safety. He also supports allocating $7 billion in federal funding to support a build-out of the network to ensure it reaches cash-strapped localities, especially rural communities.

We support the immediate allocation of the D-block spectrum to public safety. We must not approach these urgent matters at a leisurely pace. We don’t know when the next attack or disaster will strike. Further delay is intolerable. We urge the Congress to act.


This is something we can just do. Nothing is stopping us from giving the D block out to state and local governments to apply the lessons of 9/11. However some of us are hesitant. We hear talk of assigning spectrum and we oppose it, because one of the great policy successes of the FCC in recent years has been the auctioning of spectrum to the private sector.

However we’re not talking about giving away the D block to the private sector. We’re talking about giving it away for public safety. If we were to put it up to auction, we’d literally be having the government charge the government for a government service. We wouldn’t make our troops in Afghanistan pay for bullets. Why make firefighters pay for their emergency wireless telecommunications spectrum?

It all comes down to the fact that we’re conservatives. While we mistrust government, we’re not categorically opposed to government. It’s alright for a legitimate government action to happen without a fig leaf of a market in front of it. We shouldn’t pretend to privatize civil defense by creating sham auctions to allocate needed spectrum. It’s time we got behind allocating the D block to first responders without any needless delays or hoops.


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