McCain pushes for public safety network

John McCain says in a campaign speech that the Federal Communications Commission needs to allocate more spectrum for public safety.

Sen. John McCain said at a campaign stop Tuesday that he will push for a national broadband wireless network for public safety.

Speaking at the National Sheriff's Association Annual Conference, McCain, who is the presumptive Republican nominee for president, said a national, interoperable public safety broadband network was long overdue.

"You and all your colleagues in law enforcement need seamless communication across every agency and jurisdiction for emergency response," he said, according to a transcript of the event. "For more than a decade now, I have tried to persuade the Congress to provide dedicated radio spectrum and funding for communications equipment to local, state, and federal law enforcement officers."

McCain, who spent six years as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which is responsible for telecommunications policy, said during his speech Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission needs to make more radio spectrum available for law enforcement. He also said he would try to limit the amount of spectrum the FCC could auction off to the private sector.

"Just last year, I introduced a bill that provided for more than twice the capacity that the FCC has currently set aside for public safety," he said. "Special interests in Washington want the FCC to auction off more of that spectrum than I do. But no matter what price it might fetch at auction, it should be available for fighting crime and saving lives."

Ever since the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, politicians have lamented the lack of interoperability among various emergency communications networks as a key obstacle in responding effectively to disasters that arise.

Last year, the FCC auctioned off licenses in the 700MHz band of spectrum that is being vacated as part of the transition from analog to digital TV broadcast in early 2009. As part of this auction, the FCC set aside a 10MHz sliver of spectrum called the D-Block that was to be used in a public-private partnership to build a national public safety network.

When the bidding ended in March, the auction was deemed a huge success, generating about $19.6 billion in revenue for the U.S. government. But it was a failure in terms of helping establish a nationwide public safety network, since no bidder had reached the reserve price for the spectrum licenses. The FCC is currently trying to figure out how to re-auction the spectrum while still encouraging a public-private partnership for public safety.

But critics say the public-private plan is flawed. Recently, the New York Police Department filed comments with the FCC throwing cold water on the whole concept.

"The failure of the D-Block auction illustrates the problems inherent in the nationwide Public Private Partnership concept," the NYPD said in its filing. "Although public safety and commercial networks may share technology, they do not serve the same mission. Conflicts of interest arise that cannot be ignored. Public safety agencies require a robust network that will remain operational during virtually any circumstance. However, commercial network operators are motivated by commercial priorities to build networks that meet commercial requirements."

The FCC is also considering auctioning off other spectrum including "white space" spectrum, which falls between broadcast TV channels. Companies such as Google and Microsoft say that this spectrum can be used to build a wireless broadband network. And they say that devices can be developed to ensure that they don't interfere with signals broadcasting in the neighboring spectrum bands.

The FCC has also been considering a proposal to auction off spectrum in the 2.1GHz band to provide a free broadband wireless network.

McCain hasn't publicly taken a stance on these individual spectrum plans, but it's clear from his recent comments that he believes public safety organizations should get priority over any private sector companies looking to buy the spectrum licenses at auction.

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