- Associated Press - Thursday, January 27, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration is throwing its support behind a proposal to give a valuable chunk of radio waves to police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers to build a nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety.

The announcement by the White House is a big victory for public safety officials, who have been lobbying aggressively for the wireless spectrum. They want to use it as the foundation for an “interoperable” broadband network that would let first responders across different agencies and different jurisdictions communicate with each other 7/8_ a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has introduced a bill that would give the airwaves to public safety.

The announcement is also a setback for several big wireless carriers, including T-Mobile USA and Sprint Nextel Corp., which are eager to expand their spectrum holdings and want to see the airwaves auctioned off to the wireless industry. The government has projected that an auction of the spectrum would raise $3.1 billion _ money that could be used to help pay for the construction of a public safety network.

The Federal Communications Commission had also proposed auctioning off the spectrum as part of a broader plan to free up more airwaves to keep up with the exploding popularity of iPhones and other wireless devices. Such devices are putting enormous strain on the nation’s existing airwaves as Americans use them to watch video and do other online tasks that eat up a lot of bandwidth.

Both the FCC and the White House want to free up an additional 500 megahertz of spectrum for wireless broadband over the next 10 years _ roughly equal to the amount of spectrum now in the hands of the wireless industry. Much of that spectrum would be auctioned off to wireless carriers and the proceeds would be used to help pay for the public safety network and reduce the deficit.

The block of spectrum that public safety officials want, a prime slice of airwaves called the D Block, is 10 megahertz and is adjacent to another 10-megahertz block that has already been set aside for first responder broadband use. Both pieces of spectrum were freed up in the 2009 transition from analog to digital TV signals. Public safety officials say that combining them into a 20-megahertz block would give them the capacity they to respond to major emergencies and handle day-to-day operations.

The shortcomings of the existing networks became apparent after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, when police officers, fire fighters and other first responders could not talk to one another because they were using incompatible _ and sometimes antiquated _ systems.

Government officials have been searching for a solution ever since. In 2008, the FCC attempted to auction off the D Block to the wireless industry with a requirement that the winning bidder help build out a sturdy communications network that would be shared with first responders and give them priority in an emergency. But those conditions proved too onerous, and the auction failed to attract any serious bidders.

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