On interoperability, is it worth implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation?

by on February 1, 2007 · 4 comments

Implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations was the House Democrat’s top priority during their recent “first 100 hours” legislative spree. One of the recommendations addressed in the resulting H.R. 1 bill had to do with public safety communications interoperability. The 9/11 Commission found that communications between firefighters, police officers, and other emergency personnel failed that day with deadly consequences. Here is a quick analysis of H.R. 1′s interoperability provisions, as well as the Commission’s recommendation itself, in which I argue that they are both overlooking the fundamental causes of the interoperability problem.

The Commission’s recommendation about first responder communications was this:

Recommendation: Congress should support pending legislation which provides for the expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes. Furthermore, high-risk urban areas such as New York City and Washington, D.C., should establish signal corps units to ensure communications connectivity between and among civilian authorities, local first responders, and the National Guard. Federal funding of such units should be given high priority by Congress.

The first thing we should note is that H.R. 1 does not implement any of the Commission’s first responder communications recommendations that have not already been implemented. Radio spectrum is not dealt with at all in H.R. 1. This is probably the case because what the 9/11 Commission was most likely referring to was hastening the date when the digital TV transition is completed so that spectrum currently used by analog television stations is returned to the FCC and assigned to first responders. Congress last year set the deadline for the transition at Feb. 17, 2009.

The creation of “signal corps units” is also not mentioned H.R. 1. What the bill does instead is create a grant program to be managed by the Department of Homeland Security with “States and regions” as the beneficiaries. Theoretically, these grants could be used to create the “signal corps” the Commission proposed, so to that extent the recommendation is indirectly addressed. However, the same bill that hastened the digital TV transition also created a similar $1 billion interoperable communications grants program.

That said, I’m not at all troubled by the fact that the bill includes no new mention of spectrum because I don’t believe the Commission’s recommendation adequately addresses the interoperability problem. Lack of radio spectrum was not the problem on 9/11. In fact, in some ways, there was too much spectrum. The cause of the interoperability problem is the FCC’s historical policy of giving each public safety agency–including every police and fire department in the country, over 50,000 agencies in all–it’s own radio license over which it can build its own radio system. As I explain in my recent paper on the topic, this results in a collective action problem. Each agency builds a system that best fits its need, but that is incompatible with its neighbors’ systems. To its credit, the FCC has recently admitted as much and has begun to think about new ways to allocate public safety spectrum. It said in a recent regulatory action (PDF):

We believe that the time may have come for a significant departure from the typical public safety allocation model the Commission has used in the past. In prior allocations for public safety, individual public safety jurisdictions have been able to apply for and utilize individual licenses. The Commission also has permitted public safety regional planning committees to develop plans for frequency coordination on a regional basis. While this system has had significant benefits for public safety users, in terms of permitting them to deploy voice and narrowband facilities suitable for their needs, the system also has resulted in uneven build-out across the country in different bands, balkanization of spectrum between large numbers of incompatible systems, and interoperability difficulties if not inabilities.

For the past 25+ years we have been trying to patch these incompatible systems with state and regional efforts not unlike the “signal corps” the Commission proposed. These are just band-aids, and only fundamental reform of how public safety agencies acquire their radio systems will truly solve the interoperability problem. In my paper I propose allowing competing commercial firms to sell communications capacity on national interoperable networks–much the same way you or I subscribe to national cell phone carriers that provide us with completely compatible wireless communications. It’s not a far-fetched approach, and similar systems have been implemented in the UK, Austria, and even Iowa, as I explain in my paper. Even the FCC is headed in the right direction, proposing a new national public safety licensee that will offer interoperable broadband service to public safety for a fee.

Now for a closer look at what H.R. 1 actually does. Title II of the bill is entitled “Ensuring Communications Interoperability for First Responders” and it simply establishes a grants program. Theses DHS grants are to be awarded “to States and regions to carry out initiatives to improve interoperable emergency communications[.]” As I’ve explained, this does not address the core problem but merely throws money at it.1 Money, however, is not the central issue. The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 allocated $1 billion to public safety grants to be administered by NTIA for the deployment of interoperable communications systems. In addition, DHS estimates that it has spent $5.6 billion on interoperable communications equipment grants between 2003 and 2005. How much will be allocated for the new grants in H.R. 1 is unclear, but the Congress should take into consideration how much it’s already spending and how much more money is likely to help. To the extent Congress decides to spend more money, it should attach objective measures to the grants so that we can all judge their success.

If Congress wants to get serious about the interoperability problem it should support the FCC’s recent move to reform spectrum policy. To the extent that legislation prevents the FCC from considering all possible ways to allocate and assign existing public safety spectrum, Congress should consider untying the agency’s hands.

  1. Don’t get me wrong, these grants will certainly help achieve some interoperability among some agencies, if only by helping them patch and coordinate their systems. However, it does not address the core problem and does not offer a sustainable and lasting solution to the problem.

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