Many argue that Washington needs to provide more radio spectrum
for emergency service providers such as police and fire
departments. Last week, Senator John McCain endorsed an idea put
forth by Morgan O'Brien, a wireless industry pioneer and founder of
a new company called Cyren Call, to set aside billions of dollars
worth of spectrum now used for television for public safety
Certainly, public safety communication capabilities need
improvement, but a better solution would be to make more effective
use of existing resources. The Federal Communications Commission
took an important step in this direction last month when it
reformed overly restrictive rules on certain public safety
frequencies. That FCC action shows that solutions to America's
public safety woes do not necessarily lie in ever more spending and
resource allocations but in better use of resources now being
For decades, the ability of emergency personnel to communicate
with one another-whether through the ubiquitous police car radio or
a paramedic's walkie-talkie-was taken for granted. Massive
communications failures during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, however,
scuttled this confidence. During both catastrophes, emergency
personnel were often unable to get vital information and share it
with one other. Moreover, few had access to advanced broadband
communications now common in the private sector, which would have
allowed them to access real-time data and make voice calls. As a
result, the need for improved public safety communications has been
recognized across the political spectrum.
Cyren Call's Proposal
Last summer, a newly formed company called Cyren Call-headed by
Nextel founder Morgan O'Brien-proposed that 30 megahertz of radio
spectrum be reallocated to public safety users. These frequencies are among
those currently used for analog UHF television but will be vacated
in 2009, when analog TV transmissions are scheduled to end. Anticipating
this change, Congress in 1997 directed the FCC to auction these
frequencies-the equivalent of five television channels-for
commercial use. That auction is scheduled to take place next
Under Cyren Call's plan, 30 megahertz of the 60 megahertz
planned for auction would instead be given free of charge to a new
"Public Safety Broadband Trust." This trust-apparently to be
created by the FCC itself-would represent state, local, and federal
public safety users. In turn, the trust would contract with private
sector firms to build and operate an advanced broadband network
using this spectrum. While the primary users of the system would be
public safety agencies, excess capacity would be leased to the
private sector operators for commercial use.
This large, undivided block of spectrum would be ideal,
proponents of the plan say, for operation of an advanced broadband
network for police, fire departments, and other public safety
users. And the leasing of excess spectrum to private sector firms
(perhaps including Cyren Call), would provide a continuous source
of revenue for public safety users, all without any appropriations
from the U.S. Treasury.
Cyren Call first petitioned the FCC to consider its plan early
last year. The FCC, however, dismissed the proposal on the grounds
that Congress mandated that these frequencies be allocated to
commercial uses. The plan will soon be before Congress. No bill has
yet been introduced, but Senator John McCain has stated that he
will introduce legislation to set aside the spectrum.
The Cyren Call proposal is not as attractive as it may appear.
While no money would be spent directly, the actual cost of the
scheme would be titanic. The planned auction of these frequencies
is officially projected to raise some $5 billion for the Treasury.
That is a low estimate; private estimates have put possible auction
revenues as high as $14 billion, or around one-fourth of the total
homeland security budget. Under Cyren Call's proposal, these billions
would not be available for other national priorities, including
public safety itself.
The cost to American consumers could be even larger, as new
services, such as advanced mobile telephony and wireless Internet
access, are forced to find frequencies elsewhere. This has safety
consequences too. Private communications services serve critical
safety functions, such as allowing individuals to learn of dangers,
call for help, and even be located in time of emergency.
Supporters of the Cyren Call plan argue that-despite these
opportunity costs-police and fire departments have an even greater
need for the spectrum. But there is no shortage of frequencies set
aside for public safety. Some 143 megahertz has already been
allocated for such purposes. This includes 24 megahertz of analog
television spectrum already put aside-the single largest transfer
of spectrum to emergency services in history.
Make Better Use of Resources
Rather than a shortfall of spectrum, the problem is the
inefficient way that it is used. Many public safety users still use
clunky, spectrum-inefficient technologies, reducing the use they
can get out of allocated frequencies. Moreover, much of the
spectrum is fragmented, either lying in non-contiguous chunks or
sub-divided into narrow channels, pursuant to FCC rules, rather
than in larger segments that can be used for broadband
communications. Licensing is also fragmented among thousands of
local public safety entities, making standardization and
interoperability harder to achieve.
Focusing on the 24 megahertz already allocated, the FCC
addressed exactly these problems in its December ruling. Following
its usual practice, the agency had subdivided the 24-megahertz
block into minute slices-four "narrowband" segments and two
"wideband" segments. Each of these was, in turn, divided into 120
to 480 channels. Licenses for these frequencies were to be assigned
individually to thousands of public safety users.
Under the FCC's new plan, fully half of this spectrum-12
megahertz-will now be assigned as a single block to a single
national licensee. This plan is similar in many ways to the
Cyren Call plan and promises to provide many of the same benefits.
The licensee would be a nonprofit entity broadly representing all
public safety users and would be free to subdivide this block as it
chooses. And because the license is national in scope and broad in
terms of frequency, improvements in interoperability should be
easier. The licensee, as in the Cyren Call plan, would be able to
lease excess spectrum for commercial use, providing ongoing
this would be achieved using already-allocated frequencies, not new
The FCC's decision is not a cure-all for the problems of public
safety communications. But it is an important step, not least
because it shows that reform does not necessarily require massive
new resources. The most important reforms are those that allow
existing resources to be used in smarter and more effective ways.
As is often the case, better does not have to mean more.
L. Gattuso is Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy in
the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The