Chertoff: We’ll have the 25-year-old interoperability problem fixed by next year

by on November 28, 2006 · 14 comments

According to Congress Daily, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff “said today his department will ensure that the highest-risk urban areas have interoperable [public safety] communications equipment by the end of next year, and that all states have it by the end of 2008.” DHS has been under pressure from the incoming Democratic majority to do something about the lack of communications among first responders. According to the article,

Without explicitly acknowledging the looming pressure for faster action, Chertoff told a conference of emergency response officials that metropolitan regions under his department’s Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program will have interoperable communications by the end of the 2007 calendar year, followed by all states by the end of 2008.

Chertoff said the department will give urban locations “interoperability scorecards” next month to help them decide how much money to seek in their upcoming grant applications. He did not provide additional details during his speech.

A Homeland Security Department aide would only add: “We will have further info at later date, as well as further info on the grant guidance.”

The whole speech is here, but it doesn’t really add much. I’m not sure what to make of this, but if the interoperability problem could be solved so simply, by just giving more money in federal grants to states and localities, then we would have fixed it a long time ago. As the Katrina Commission pointed out in its report, “Although some New Orleans and Louisiana state officials attribute the lack of true interoperability for first responders in the region to financial limitations, this explanation flies in the face of the massive amounts of federal grants to Louisiana.” Among other things, the interoperability problem is caused by a collective action problem, which in turn is cause by a spectrum policy that gives each of 50,000 public safety agencies their own (untradable) spectrum license and thus the impetus to build their own custom radio system. Coordination among these 50,000 actors is not easy, and I don’t see how more money will help.

Luckily, the Mercatus Center and Tom Hazlett’s Tech Center at GMU are putting on a symposium along with the FCLJ that will try to offer some solutions for the interoperability issue on Friday, Dec. 8. You’re intvited. Presenting papers on the topic will be Gerald Faulhaber, Jon Peha, Phil Weiser, and yours truly.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    Based on my casual understanding of how the radio spectrum is allocated the statement “a spectrum policy that gives each of 50,000 public safety agencies their own (untradable) spectrum license and thus the impetus to build their own custom radio system.” is flat out wrong.

    I will agree that a major part of the problem is a “collective action problem”. The failure to plan effectively. The lack of interoperability is not a market problem but an administrative problem.

    Part of the blame for the lack of interoperablity actually belongs to private industry itself. One of the organizations I belong to received new radios, the radio technician responsible for setting up the communication system had nothing good to say about them because of their proprietary (DRM) nature which limited their functionality for interoperability and made existing radio equipment “obsolete”.

    Based on the trend for proprietary systems (locked cell phones), I doubt that a market approach would ever work. Basically this is an administrative issue that can be solved, if we had effective planning rather than analysis paralysis.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    Based on my casual understanding of how the radio spectrum is allocated the statement “a spectrum policy that gives each of 50,000 public safety agencies their own (untradable) spectrum license and thus the impetus to build their own custom radio system.” is flat out wrong.

    I will agree that a major part of the problem is a “collective action problem”. The failure to plan effectively. The lack of interoperability is not a market problem but an administrative problem.

    Part of the blame for the lack of interoperablity actually belongs to private industry itself. One of the organizations I belong to received new radios, the radio technician responsible for setting up the communication system had nothing good to say about them because of their proprietary (DRM) nature which limited their functionality for interoperability and made existing radio equipment “obsolete”.

    Based on the trend for proprietary systems (locked cell phones), I doubt that a market approach would ever work. Basically this is an administrative issue that can be solved, if we had effective planning rather than analysis paralysis.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    How exactly is my statement flat out wrong?

  • http://www.jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    How exactly is my statement flat out wrong?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    The spectrum is managed by the FCC. Within the spectrum there are band plans that allocate who has or who does not have access to particular frequencies. The FCC as the manager (administrator) of the spectrum should be able, on its own volition and in cooperation with the users, resolve interoperability issues by assigning “shared” frequencies. Since the spectrum is already in public ownership, which is a form of private ownership, and is already being managed there is no justification for transferring it to a third party to do the same task. In the abstract, transferring responsibility from one manager to another accomplishes nothing.

    Furthermore, if a private company, such as a baby bell can build communication facilities, it logically follows that a public agency should also have the ability to build communication facilities. It seems to me that the owner of a communication system should have the right to implement the system as they see fit. If a market solution presents itself, fine. If not, it should not be mandated.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    The spectrum is managed by the FCC. Within the spectrum there are band plans that allocate who has or who does not have access to particular frequencies. The FCC as the manager (administrator) of the spectrum should be able, on its own volition and in cooperation with the users, resolve interoperability issues by assigning “shared” frequencies. Since the spectrum is already in public ownership, which is a form of private ownership, and is already being managed there is no justification for transferring it to a third party to do the same task. In the abstract, transferring responsibility from one manager to another accomplishes nothing.

    Furthermore, if a private company, such as a baby bell can build communication facilities, it logically follows that a public agency should also have the ability to build communication facilities. It seems to me that the owner of a communication system should have the right to implement the system as they see fit. If a market solution presents itself, fine. If not, it should not be mandated.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    So my statement is correct. Because the FCC chooses to let 50,000 agencies build their own radio systems on their own licensed spectrum we get a collective action problem. They could avoid the problem, as you suggest, by managing the spectrum themselves in a way that addresses compatibility. Alternatively they could let a private band manager (or, preferably, managers) do the same thing. Which approach is better is something we can debate, but my statement–that the current policy of letting each agency manage its own spectrum causes the relevant collective action problem–is not flat out wrong.

  • http://www.jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    So my statement is correct. Because the FCC chooses to let 50,000 agencies build their own radio systems on their own licensed spectrum we get a collective action problem. They could avoid the problem, as you suggest, by managing the spectrum themselves in a way that addresses compatibility. Alternatively they could let a private band manager (or, preferably, managers) do the same thing. Which approach is better is something we can debate, but my statement–that the current policy of letting each agency manage its own spectrum causes the relevant collective action problem–is not flat out wrong.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    Ok. The debate shall continue!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    Ok. The debate shall continue!

  • Nick Ruark

    Jerry: Considering the vast amount of public funds which have already been thrown at the problem over the last several years without much if any “guidance” as to how those funds should be spent (until very recently, perhaps), I’d have to agree with your opinion as to how effective additional public monies might be.

    Steve R.: You also make a good point with your comment that “the lack of interoperability is not a market problem but an administrative problem”.
    However, I must respectfully disagree with your perception that the “spectrum is managed by the FCC”. On paper, maybe; in reality, the spectrum has become just another commodity to help the government fund its economic development agenda,
    among other things. IMHO, the FCC has proven itself to be relatively incapable of responsible management of this important natural resource over the last 15-20 years.

    Just my .02 cents, for whatever it may be worth.

    Nick Ruark

  • Nick Ruark

    Jerry: Considering the vast amount of public funds which have already been thrown at the problem over the last several years without much if any “guidance” as to how those funds should be spent (until very recently, perhaps), I’d have to agree with your opinion as to how effective additional public monies might be.

    Steve R.: You also make a good point with your comment that “the lack of interoperability is not a market problem but an administrative problem”.
    However, I must respectfully disagree with your perception that the “spectrum is managed by the FCC”. On paper, maybe; in reality, the spectrum has become just another commodity to help the government fund its economic development agenda,
    among other things. IMHO, the FCC has proven itself to be relatively incapable of responsible management of this important natural resource over the last 15-20 years.

    Just my .02 cents, for whatever it may be worth.

    Nick Ruark

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    Nick: You are correct, there is theory and reality. Regretfully, our government is a government of and for the corporations. I still cling to the belief, despite reality, that the government will act in the public interest.

    However, I must also add, that even if the government were truly acting in the public interest, the government should have a right to lease spectrum to corporations/individuals. After all it is an asset. Furthermore, the spectrum is held in trust by government and must not be privatized. Finally, it is not the role of government to “help” corporations, only to provide a level playing field.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    Nick: You are correct, there is theory and reality. Regretfully, our government is a government of and for the corporations. I still cling to the belief, despite reality, that the government will act in the public interest.

    However, I must also add, that even if the government were truly acting in the public interest, the government should have a right to lease spectrum to corporations/individuals. After all it is an asset. Furthermore, the spectrum is held in trust by government and must not be privatized. Finally, it is not the role of government to “help” corporations, only to provide a level playing field.

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