Senate panel OKs bill on first responder communications

McClatchy NewspapersJune 8, 2011 

WASHINGTON — On Sept. 11, 2001, firefighters and police officers rushed to the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. When a collapse was imminent, emergency responders couldn't communicate that with one another because of their equipment, which had different bandwidths and frequencies. Those who didn't get the message died.

Nearly 10 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a Senate panel on Wednesday advanced a bill that would give public safety officials access to a nationwide wireless, interoperable broadband network.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the bill had bipartisan support and that passing it was his top priority this year. It would give first responders and public safety officials the capacity to do what many teenagers already do on their smartphones: share multimedia messages and data at high speeds. Officials would be able to share surveillance videos or floor plans of burning buildings with workers on the scene.

"This is a massive step," Rockefeller said, "and it's a deeply and profoundly emotional one in so many ways: the shame of not having done anything for so long, the joy of now doing something which is good, in a bipartisan way by a large margin."

Two-thirds of the Republicans on the committee supported the bill, and Republican committee aides said they had confidence that it would get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. They also hope the House of Representatives will look to the committee's bipartisan example should the bill get there. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, the bill's sponsor, and Rockefeller hope to pass the bill before Sept. 11 this year.

Hutchison said the bill paid for itself and would reduce the federal budget deficit in the long term. While the estimated cost of the network is $17 billion, the bill allows the Federal Communications Commission to auction part of the spectrum for commercial wireless use, which would raise enough money to pay for the network plus $10 billion to pay down the deficit, she said.

The federal government wouldn't directly control the network; an independent nonprofit corporation would do that.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said he was skeptical. Among his grievances is that the bill gives away a valuable portion of the broadband spectrum for free and the corporation that would run it would make no profit. In addition, the network's quality would suffer from bureaucracy and lack of free market competition, he said.

Private companies could purchase the network instead and make it available to first responders, DeMint said.

"There can be no reasonable assumption that a quasi-government entity can manage the fast-changing technology that we have in the communications industry in a way that will maintain first-quality communication to our first responders," he said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the bill didn't adequately protect the rights of low-power television stations, which largely serve rural or niche populations in urban markets. Under the current bill, they could be forced into uneconomic arrangements, she said. Rockefeller said he'd continue to work with McCaskill on these concerns, though the outcomes might not equally please stakeholders.

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