The lesson of 9/11 for civilians and first responders can be
stated simply: in the new age of terror, they — we — are the primary
targets. The losses America suffered that day demonstrated both the
gravity of the terrorist threat and the commensurate need to prepare
ourselves to meet it. — 9/11 Commission Report (2004)
Nearly six years after the terrorist attacks on the United States, the
government is finally responding to what was obvious to all first
responders on that horrific day in 2001: the lack of interoperable
communications cost lives.
That lack of interoperability was not lost on the 9/11 Commission, as
one of its 41 recommendations to Congress included making more spectrum
available for first responders to build a nationwide, IP-based
In late 2005, Congress did exactly that, pressuring broadcasters to
leave their 700 MHz analog spectrum as part of the digital television
(DTV) transition set for Feb. 17, 2009. The spectrum is as ideal for
wireless networks as it is for broadcasters since the airwaves penetrate
walls and travel great distances.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to sell the vacated
spectrum during a January auction that could bring in more than $15
billion in bids. One of the prime blocks up for
auction is located next to the spectrum dedicated for public safety. The
FCC plans to pair the two blocks for the building of a wireless first-responder network.
While most of the media hype
surrounding the auction has centered on whether Google will make
a run at some of the commercial spectrum, the building of a
nationwide first-responder network remains a critical aspect of the
Open access isn’t only FCC experiment
The [NY Fire Department] ordered both towers fully evacuated by
8:57, but this guidance was not conveyed to 911 operators and FDNY
dispatchers, who for the next hour often continued to advise civilians
not to self-evacuate, regardless of whether they were above or below the
impact zones. — 9/11 Commission Report.
As Congress in 2005 originally saw
it, the 700 MHz auction would offer not only enough spectrum to
build a new national network to deliver advanced commercial wireless
services, but also have enough leftover spectrum to give first
responders their own national network.
But the FCC concluded that not enough public money was available to
build the system. Most of the proceeds of the auction will go a public
subsidy fund for digital television converter boxes with the rest going
to reduce the national debt.
Reluctantly, the FCC turned to a private-public scheme to get the first
responder network built. The FCC is making a 10 MHz commercial
spectrum block available next to public safety’s dedicated 10 MHz of
spectrum, and it will likely cost the high bidder several billion
The winner of the block will be required to work with public
safety agencies, who control the spectrum dedicated to first responders,
under a single, national license. Under the partnership, public safety
agencies will lease spectrum from the partnership. Public safety will
have priority access to the spectrum and the commercial spectrum holder
will have secondary access to the public safety broadband spectrum.
The commercial operator of the public-private emergency network will be
expected to build the network and cover 75 percent of the U.S.
population within four years. Within 10 years, the network builder is
required to cover 99.3 percent of the country.
Estimates for building the network reach as high $10 billion.