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A decade later, public safety still lacks national network

Ten years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the government still hasn't built an interoperable network for emergency responders.

Ten years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. is still without a nationwide network that would let first responders from different agencies and jurisdictions communicate with each other over emergency radios.

In late August, the National Security Preparedness Group pointed to the lack of the national interoperable radio network recommended by the 9/11 Commission. And the commission itself recently issued a report card that expressed concern over communications capabilities.

One of the biggest problems immediately following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City was that firefighters and police were unable to communicate. When the NYPD was ordering everyone to evacuate the towers, firefighters were not notified and lives were lost.

"When fireman can't talk to policeman--can't talk to rescue workers, medical personnel--people die," Commission Chair and former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean said upon the release of the commission's report card, according to CBS News.

In its original report about September 11, the 9/11 Commission recommended that the federal government provide wireless spectrum to the first responder community to build a nationwide wireless network that would let rescue workers and first responders from different agencies and different areas of the country communicate with each other.

In January, President Barack Obama announced support for allocating the spectrum that had been set aside for this purpose in the 700MHz spectrum auction. The so-called D-block spectrum is a 10MHz chunk that was supposed to be sold off as part of the 2008 auction run by the Federal Communications Commission.

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The FCC had hoped a commercial buyer would bid on the spectrum with the condition that it be shared with public safety agencies for emergency use. But with the condition imposed, a buyer was never found and the D-block has remained empty.

Meanwhile, bills reallocating the D-block for public safety have been introduced in the House and Senate. But so far no piece of legislation has passed. While most lawmakers and the FCC support using the spectrum to create the network, what they disagree on is whether the spectrum should be auctioned off or given to public safety agencies. And they disagree over who should fund the network, and how. Public safety officials say they need between $10 billion and $12 billion to build the network.

The FCC maintains its position that the spectrum should be auctioned off to commercial buyers, who would let emergency officials use the network when they needed it. A big selling point of this proposal is that the government could earn an estimated $3.1 billion in the auction and use some of those proceeds to help build the network.

But public safety officials are adamant that they need a wireless network they alone control. They don't want to share it with commercial providers. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) has taken up their cause and proposed a bill that would give them the spectrum. Rockefeller's bill also includes a provision authorizing the FCC to conduct incentive auctions, which are aimed at persuading broadcasters to voluntarily give up some of their spectrum in exchange for some of the proceeds from the auction. Rockefeller's bill would use proceeds from the broadcast incentive auctions, as well as other auctions the FCC may conduct, to help fund the public safety network.

There was talk earlier this summer that lawmakers would make the D-Block spectrum reallocation, and authorization for incentive TV broadcast auctions, a part of the deficit and debt-ceiling negotiations. The idea was that Congress could include the spectrum auction authorizations as a way to help reduce the deficit. The measure never made it into the final bill, mainly because lawmakers still disagree over whether spectrum should be auctioned or allocated and how to fund the network.

Sen. Rockefeller had been pushing to get his bill passed by the 10th anniversary of September 11. But as that date approaches, it looks like Congress will miss the deadline.

The industry is also split on how the spectrum should be allocated. AT&T and Verizon Wireless support Rockefeller's proposal of giving the D-Block away. These companies each participated in and bought spectrum in the 2008 700MHz auction. They are using that spectrum to build their 4G LTE networks. Sprint, T-Mobile USA, and several other smaller wireless operators, all of which did not win spectrum in the last auction, support the FCC's proposal to auction off the spectrum to commercial bidders.

At this point both proposals are stuck.

"I think everyone agrees that we ought to have a network for public safety," said Harold Feld, legal director for public interest group Public Knowledge. "But there are some in Congress who are more interested in finding revenue through auctions than giving it away."

Improvements have been made
Though politicians and lobbyists for public safety are focused almost exclusively on the D-block spectrum, work has been done to improve communications for public safety.

The FCC has taken on the task of trying to eliminate harmful interference in certain radio bands already allocated for public safety communications. Specifically, it has begun the process of rebanding or cleaning up spectrum in the 800MHz block to help ensure commercial services don't interfere with public safety transmission. But it's a long and difficult process that continues today.

Some cities, such as New York, have also improved their existing local public safety networks. For example, since September 11, the New York City Fire Department has taken substantial steps to improve its radio communications. And officials for the agency say they are better equipped to deal with a large scale disaster today than they were a decade ago.

Some of the city's other improvements include a new operations center headquartered in Brooklyn that offers centralized command and control for all the major public-safety agencies in the city, including the New York Police Department and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH).

The agencies have also improved the communications networks and from the command center they are able to view live video feeds from the NYPD as well as from local media outlets. They can access digital photos from the city's transportation department and hold live video conferences with other command centers throughout the city. None of this was available to these agencies prior to 9/11.

Even though they lack the new spectrum to build a nationwide interoperable radio network, New York City emergency agencies have updated and coordinated their portable radio systems so that they have more channels available, including several that are interoperable between different agencies.

New York City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications has also launched its own high-speed wireless network for public safety. The New York City Wireless Network (NYCWiN) was launched in 2009 and provides mobile broadband to the city's first responders across 300 square miles and five boroughs.

NYCWiN is fast enough and has enough capacity for first responders to transfer large files, including fingerprints, mug shots, city maps, automatic vehicle location, and streaming video. This will give police and fire officials access to streaming video, photos, maps, and other large pieces of data in the field, essentially turning cop cars and fire trucks into mobile offices with access to increasing amounts of data.

Tom Shelman, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman, which helped the city build this network, said when the network was launched that it was "a model for how states, cities, and counties can deploy and manage their own mission-critical communications infrastructure."

Still, public safety officials say more is needed. But they're confident they'll get what they need from the government.

"We may not get legislation enacted by September 11, but we are hopeful that [Sen. Rockefeller's bill] will come to the floor right after they come back, and that will drive the House to come out with matching legislation, and we will bring this to a conclusion by the end of the year," Gregory Riddle, the president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, told Urgent Communications in an interview last month. Urgent Communications is a trade publication covering communications for public safety.

"I think we're all very confident that we're going to win this," he added. "The bottom line is that both the Republicans and Democrats agree that we need this technology."

In the third part of CNET's report that will be published tomorrow, Declan McCullagh will explain how the events on 9/11 have shaped how the government views privacy in the electronic age.