Making the Case for a Nationwide Interoperable Network

It doesn’t take much to state the obvious: Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are changing the way humans interact – and law enforcement reacts. The hockey riots in Vancouver serve as a recent example, with rioters and onlookers using social media to post pictures, video, tweets and text messages from the site of the mayhem while police, in turn, utilized social media to catch the hooligans.

With 2011 being billed as the year that smartphones hit “Main Street,” this type of instant communication within the broader context of society has become so common that it’s now taken for granted.

That’s what makes the state of public safety communications all the more disheartening. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the 9/11 Commission Report recommended the creation of a nationwide interoperable communications network for first responders. Building such a system would allow police officers, firefighters and other emergency personnel to communicate effectively with each other in times of crisis as well as during everyday operations.

Today that network is one of the only recommendations from the 9/11 Commission Report that hasn’t been acted on.

Fortunately, the upcoming tenth anniversary of 9/11 is spurring action in Congress. In early June, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved S. 911, a bipartisan bill that aims to create a nationwide high-speed wireless network for first responders. Introduced by committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, S. 911 was approved 21-4 in committee and now moves to the full Senate floor for a vote. The bill would designate 10 megahertz of high-quality spectrum (the D Block) to public safety and establish the foundation for a nationwide public safety broadband network.

Vice President Joe Biden has publicly stated that the Obama administration supports the building of a fully interoperable nationwide network as it unlocks the potential for commercial devices and infrastructure to be used for public safety. A recent press release issued by his office reiterates this point, saying, “Almost ten years after 9/11, our system of public safety communications remains outdated, both from a performance and cost-effectiveness standpoint.”

Whether through allocation or auction of the spectrum, this type of network is crucial in protecting and saving American lives. Large urban areas are home to multiple police, firefighting and paramedic services, requiring by necessity that they be able to talk to each other and coordinate their response to a crisis in real time.

Rural areas need an interoperable network just as much as cities do. The great distances between services makes interoperability among first responders of utmost importance as real-time coordination could make the difference in a life or death situation.

Some jurisdictions have created their own interoperable systems, but these efforts are restricted by geography and each must pay to maintain their own network. Overall, public safety communications infrastructure across the country remains fragmented.

We have waited far too long for a nationwide interoperable broadband network. Now is the time for Congress to lay aside its differences and stand behind the more than two million first responders who need next generation technologies to properly protect Americans.