Obama administration endorses National Emergency Network

Since the attack on the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001, national leaders have been debating how to establish a nationwide emergency telecommunications network. Now, President Barack Obama will ask Congress to allocate a block of spectrum to build such a network.

The administration’s action represents a reversal of policy. At one time, the White House and the FCC supported a spectrum auction for the creation of the network.

Congress had mandated that the wireless spectrum at issue, called the D Block, be auctioned off to a commercial wireless company. That company would then raise the money to build the public network. However, the auction that began in January 2008 for the D Block failed to attract a bidder willing to pay the $1.3 billion reserve price.

Last summer, the FCC changed course, arguing that a better public safety communications network could be constructed at lower cost by using airwaves already dedicated to public safety. This could be supplemented by the right to take over commercial networks in an emergency.

Just before Obama’s State of the Union speech in January, the administration notified public safety officials, after months of lobbying, that the president would support the planned network.

A remaining issue is how the network will be paid for. The auction of D Block had been expected to raise more than $3 billion. Obama administration officials told The New York Times that they believe that their broader plan to conduct auctions of other spectrum, including unused airwaves voluntarily given up by broadcasters, will raise the extra money required to prevent the D Block allocation from increasing the federal deficit.