In light of natural disasters, Senate leaders push for quick spectrum legislation

Using the recent East Coast earthquake and hurricane as an example of the need for a better emergency communications infrastructure, members of the Senate Commerce Committee are pushing Congress for quick passage of the broadcast spectrum auction legislation — that includes a provision for first responders.

The ranking members of the Senate Commerce Committee called on their colleagues to pass S. 911, the legislation allowing broadcast spectrum auctions that would open more airwaves for wireless services and help fund a national emergency network.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Commerce Committee, and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) also urged the FCC to move “as quickly as possible” to finish its assessment of mobile technology outages related to last week’s quake.

Mobile phone companies said there were no outages or infrastructure damage during the earthquake, but admitted congestion due to heavy calling volumes. Minimal damage was also reported to facilities from the hurricane. The government urged cell phone users to stay off their phones during Hurricane Irene, which battered the East Coast earlier this week.

The Rockefeller/Hutchinson letter was sent to the FCC before Hurricane Irene made landfall.

“Americans should expect that they can reach their loved ones during an emergency,” the senators wrote. “But our commercial networks are asked to do much more. Because first responders still do not have a nationwide wireless broadband network of their own, they must rely on these same commercial networks if they hope to access any mobile data services, such as text messaging and emails.”

The senators noted it has been six years since Hurricane Katrina and ten years since 9/11, yet there is still no public safety network in the United States.

“We must not allow any more potentially life-threatening disasters to occur,” the senators wrote, “before our nation’s first responders get the interoperable public safety communications system they need to keep us safe.”

Ignoring broadcasters in the letter, the senators said the congestion following last week’s earthquake “clearly demonstrates the need for more commercial spectrum.” Indeed, the senators added, “network problems like we saw this week may become even more frequent if the government does not act quickly to make more spectrum available for advanced wireless services.”v