D-Block Allocation to Law Enforcement is a Win for States

Since the Super Committee failed to produce legislation to reduce the deficit, smaller yet extremely important issues have resurfaced in Congress. On Tuesday, Rep. Greg Walden introduced the Jumpstarting Opportunity through Broadband Spectrum, or JOBS, Act. The bill seems to be on the fast track to approval in the U.S. House, as this Thursday, the Committee on Energy and Commerce will take up the bill.

It is good news that Congress is still paying attention to this issue, especially after recent attempts to include spectrum measures in larger legislative packages have failed (see: the debt ceiling debacle of August 2011 and the Super Committee failure of last week). However, what Congress decides to do with the newly available airwaves, specifically, the large portion known as the D-Block, will have huge implications for states.

The debate over the fate of the D-Block changed substantially this week. Until Tuesday, the issue was whether the D-Block should be auctioned off, with the proceeds used to reduce the deficit, or committed to state and local law enforcement to create a national public safety network. A broad coalition of law enforcement agencies have stated that their ability to communicate during an emergency is dangerously lax and Congress could help in a major way by allocating the D-Block to first responders. Walden’s bill brought an end to this debate by committing the D-Block to law enforcement and auctioning the remaining spectrum, as Democrats on his committee and in the U.S. Senate had pushed for.

The issue of contention now is how the national public safety network will be governed. Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats claim they were cut out of the bill drafting process and introduced their own bill Tuesday, which closely mirrors a bill introduced earlier this year in the Senate. The Democratic bill administers the public safety network through a private, nonprofit entity governed by a board of directors made up of federal, state, local government and private sector representatives. The Republican bill would house the network within the FCC, but with a board similar to the Democratic bill. Each model has advantages, depending on the amount of resources each state is able to commit to creating a network. In such a difficult fiscal time for states, though, this issue should not be taken lightly.

Regardless of how the governance battle plays out, lawmakers deserve credit for agreeing to allocate the D-Block to law enforcement, and it is a huge victory for states. State and local law enforcement have advocated for this for years; in fact, the 9/11 Commission supported the idea in its 2002 report after testimony that an inability to communicate was a major issue during the terror attacks. It is shameful that an issue this important has languished in Congress for more than nine years, but hopeful that there is finally some agreement.