White House moves to give airwaves to public safety for emergency wireless network
President Obama endorsed a plan Thursday to give public safety officials a swath of valuable airwaves so that fire crews, police and paramedics can build a wireless high-speed Internet network to communicate during times of emergency.
The White House said the proposal, outlined this week in legislation proposed by Sen. John Rockfeller (D-W.V.), is part of Obama's State of the Union pledge to cover 98 percent of the nation with high-speed wireless access and build an interoperable network for public safety officials.
The plan opposes one presented last year by the Federal Communications Commission, which said that television airwaves should be auctioned to a commercial carrier who would build out the network to share with emergency first responders. The FCC says public safety officials can't afford to build the network, and the costs -- which could reach $16 billion -- would be enormous for the federal government. T-Mobile has pushed for an auction because it wants to buy more spectrum to compete with AT&T and Verizon Wireless in high-speed wireless Internet service. Public safety officials and companies such as Motorola, AT&T and Verizon, meanwhile, have lobbied against the FCC proposal.
But the FCC on Thursday indicated support for the White House plan, saying it shares the administration's goal to bring high-speed wireless networks to more Americans.
"The White House has proposed a National Wireless Initiative that will help unleash new spectrum through incentive auctions, expand next generation wireless broadband coverage across the country, and implement and pay for a nationwide interoperable public safety network," a senior FCC official said in a statement. "We share these goals and, like the President, believe they are essential to our global competitiveness, economic growth, and innovation. We look forward to working with Congress and the Administration in the months ahead on the specifics."
The White House offiicial said the proceeds from a separate voluntary auction of broadcasters' airwaves for commercial high-speed wireless networks would help cover the costs in building a public safety network. The official said in a call with media that the administration hoped to get legislation passed this year to move forward on the public safety plan.
On Tuesday, Obama said during his speech that the public safety network would solve communications problems that have plagued public safety officials. During the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, fire, Port Authority and police crews complained of radio problems and an inability to communicate with one another.
The future network would solve that problem and allow for new communications tools such as "a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device," Obama said in his speech.
A White House official said the administration would present details on its plan in coming weeks. The official said in a statement that the White House would support legislation that specifically blocks the auction of public safety airwaves to a company. Instead, the White House would support federal financial support.
"This decision follows a nine-month interagency review process that included extensive consultations with stakeholders and discussions with members of Congress," the official said in a statement.
| January 27, 2011; 4:45 PM ET
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