- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

House lawmakers yesterday clashed over how to create a nationwide public safety communications network after spectrum set aside for it failed to sell in a recent government auction of airwaves.

The Federal Communications Commission, in its sale of airwaves being vacated after next year’s transition to digital television, had attached conditions to a slice of the spectrum that called for the winning bidder to partner with public safety officials and build a national emergency communications network. But the so-called “D” block failed to attract a minimum bid, leaving the agency with a chunk of spectrum and questions of what to do next.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle yesterday bemoaned the lack of an emergency network more than six years after the September 11 terrorist attacks and nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina — episodes that were hampered by conflicting communications systems for local, state and national emergency officials.

But no consensus emerged during the congressional oversight hearing on how to ensure that a network is established.

“I’m curious who is going to pay this money, how it’s going to be paid … and what is all going to be accomplished by this curious public-private partnership,” said Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Despite his skepticism, Mr. Dingell told members of the subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet that he supports the idea of such a partnership.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, a Republican, was joined by colleagues when he likewise defended the structure as the best option given a lack of public funding for the project, which is estimated to cost between $6 billion and $7 billion.

Many appeared to agree that bidders were discouraged by the agency’s conditions on the network, including specific timetables by which the winner was to build out the network to reach certain segments of the population.

“I told you so,” Rep. Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican, said to the commissioners. Mr. Barton, who was one of 16 lawmakers who objected to the rules in a letter to the agency last summer, wants to re-auction the spectrum without a public-private partnership and use the proceeds to fund a separate network for public safety.

Mr. Dingell and other Democrats knocked that plan, as did Harlin McEwen of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, the nonprofit group of public safety officials in charge of the spectrum.

To do so would require congressional authority, Mr. Martin noted. Without congressional intervention, the five-member commission ultimately will decide how to proceed.

Agreeing on something

The Society of Professional Journalists yesterday praised presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle for their support of a bill that would shield journalists from revealing confidential sources. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, on Monday pledged to support the Free Flow of Information Act, a move that was followed yesterday with pledges from Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Thirty-two states and the District have media shield laws but there is no such federal protection, the group noted.

Channel Surfing runs on Wednesdays. E-mail krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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