Payroll Tax Cut Deal Paves Way for Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network

The following was written by Mitchel Herckis, Principal Associate for Federal Relations

In these difficult times, it seems rare that we can tout a bipartisan victory that helps cities and towns across the nation.  However, this week Congress has the opportunity to take a major step forward in replacing the current patchwork of voice-only first responder communications with a modern nationwide 4G wireless network that will ensure our first responders receive the information they need when disaster strikes.

Since well before September 11, 2001, cities and towns, along with our first responders, have requested the construction of a nationwide interoperable network for public safety.  After the attacks in 2001, it became a major recommendation of the 9/11 Commission—one of the few never fulfilled by Congress.

However, with the passage of the payroll tax bill, Congress will pave the way for the creation of a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network that gives our first responders access to technologies that you and I take for granted as commercial customers.

Once fully implemented, first responders will be able to share video, pictures, and data in real time.  Police and fire services from other jurisdictions and states will be able to have their communications equipment seamlessly linked into local systems when responding to major emergencies and national crises.  Most importantly of all, public safety will have a reliable, resilient communications network that they control.

While details of the agreement are still coming out, one thing is certain: this is a big win for the National League of Cities, local governments, and our first responders.

Here’s just some of what the final deal will mean to our nation:

•    Sufficient dedicated spectrum for public safety.  The bill will reallocate the 700 MHz D Block of spectrum to public safety, and retains nationwide “narrowband” 700 MHz spectrum currently used for land mobile radio (LMR) communication.  This ensures our responders will be able to utilize both mission critical voice and modern 4G wireless broadband services to communicate in almost every emergency situation.
•    $7 billion in funds for build out and operate the nationwide network.  While there is a requirement of a non-federal match of at least 20 percent, it may be waived if in “the public interest.”
•    Funding for Next Generation 9-1-1.  NG9-1-1 will allow citizens to send texts, pictures, and video to 9-1-1 call centers, who will in turn be able to share vital information with our first responders.
As a result of gaining this significant benefit for cities and towns, public safety utilizing the “T-Band” (470-512 MHz) will be required to transition off of it over the next 9-11 years.  For many localities, this will mean changing how public safety communications are handled.  To assist localities, the legislation authorizes funding to assist affected state and local governments in relocating from the T-Band.

The bill may also impact some local authority.  Under the bill state and local governments must approve any requests for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of that tower or base station that involves collocation of new transmission equipment, removal of transmission equipment, or replacement of that transmission equipment.  Historic preservation and environmental requirements will still have to be met, though.

The network will be overseen by a national governance committee consisting of state, local, and tribal representatives, as well as public safety officials, from across the nation.   While individual states will have an option to opt out of the national network construction and conduct their own deployment, their plan to do so would need to be approved by the national governance body, meeting certain requirements of interoperability and perhaps other benchmarks.
While challenges lie ahead, we can safely say Congress has taken the big step in the right direction.  We can also say that we are on the threshold of a great victory for our communities, our first responders, and our nation.