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FCC Looks To Free Up Additional Spectrum For Public Safety Providers

The FCC is seeking comments on a proposal to reallocate 12 megahertz of the 700 MHz public safety spectrum from wideband to broadband use.

Citing the communications difficulties public safety personnel had during the 9/11 tragedy and the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes, the FCC is clearing the way for a nationwide interoperable, broadband swath of spectrum that would let first responders to disasters more easily communicate with each other.

Specifically, the FCC reported Wednesday that it's seeking comments on a proposal to reallocate 12 megahertz of the 700 MHz public safety spectrum from wideband to broadband use.

"We are now over five years out from the tragedy of 9/11 and over a year since Hurricane Katrina, and we know this: America is not as ready as it could be and should be for the next attack or natural disaster," said FCC commissioner Michael Copps in a statement.

The 700 MHz spectrum has been used primarily for UHF TV, and reallocating 12 megahertz of the spectrum would free up valuable space. Joe Nordgaard, managing director of wireless consultancy Spectral Advantage, says problems first responders had communicating with each other became painfully evident as far back as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

"It was a real watershed event," he says. "First responders found they couldn't communicate." Nordgaard says an allocation of additional spectrum to public safety will make it more efficient to send data and text messages as well as voice calls during a crisis. "If you have text on a screen, you don't have to stop and write it down," he says.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin noted that Congress controls the allocation of the 700 MHz band and that the new proposal wouldn't be a substitute for existing public safety measures and proposals.

The FCC is examining "a public-private partnership approach" to the 700 MHz proposal. This approach makes sense, Nordgaard says, because private commercial interests could make use of the spectrum, but vacate it if and when a disaster struck. "It's a good way to help offset the cost," he says.

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