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Emergency Network Plan Revived

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Premium Subscriber
Sep 20, 2006
Emergency Network Plan Revived

Posted: May 14th, 2008 02:30 PM EDT

Associated Press Writer

The Federal Communications Commission agreed unanimously Wednesday to try again to create a nationwide emergency communications network after an earlier plan failed to attract sufficient support from private investors.

The initial plan, approved last summer, would have used publicly owned spectrum to attract a private investor that would bear the cost of the network. The network would be used by police officers, firefighters and other emergency crews responding to disasters or terrorism attacks.

The commission wants public input on how to modify the plan to make it more attractive to the private sector. It is also asking whether the concept should be abandoned altogether and the public airwaves dedicated to the network be auctioned to the highest bidder for commercial use.

Under the original plan, the agency set aside a swath of airwaves for auction to a commercial bidder that would be combined with a roughly equal portion of spectrum controlled by a public safety trust to create a shared emergency communications network.

The winning bidder, in exchange for use of the public safety spectrum, would build the network and make a profit by selling access to wireless service providers.

The block was part of a broader auction that raised a record $19.1 billion. But the public safety spectrum failed to attract the minimum bid of $1.3 billion required to award the license.

At a recent congressional hearing, two Republicans suggested that the block should be sold and the proceeds distributed to public safety organizations to build a network on their own.

The winning bidder, in addition to having to lay out a minimum of $1.3 billion for the spectrum and spend billions more to build the network, would also be required to reach a network-sharing agreement with public safety organizations.

Potential bidders quoted in an FCC investigative report said the failed plan lacked specificity and created too much risk for investors.

Ideally, a new network would help solve the problem of public safety organizations not being able to communicate with one another and avail emergency personnel of many of the advances in wireless technology that are available to commercial users.

Such a network would have been of value to rescue workers in states that were ravaged by killer tornadoes over the weekend.

Roger Strope, assistant director of the communications division of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said the tornadoes struck a rural part of his state where communications systems are "relatively basic."

If a network were hardened to standards required by emergency personnel, it "would probably bring a lot more functionality to a rural area that would not normally be able to build it on their own," he said.

Commission estimates on how much a national network might cost have ranged from $6 billion to $7 billion, but private sector estimates are more than double that amount.
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