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Bill establishing wireless network for first responders is expected to pass

By Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack N.J.) –

WASHINGTON — Emergency workers would get their own $7 billion national wireless network under a bill that Congress is expected to approve Friday, closing a crucial security gap exposed by 9/11.

“If it’s done right, and I assume it’s going to be, it means for the first time, whenever there’s an emergency — and it doesn’t have to be a terrorist attack, it could be a flood, a fire, whatever — first responders will be able talk to each other, on their own spectrum,” said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean.

Kean was chairman of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks and had pressed Congress to deal with emergency communications because firefighters died in the World Trade Center when they did not get the order to evacuate.

“Policemen couldn’t talk to firemen. Helicopters couldn’t talk to boats. That should never happen when this is done,” Kean said.

It may be years before that happens, however, because the Federal Communications Commission would have to raise the money by auctioning the spectrum that television stations had used before switching to high-definition broadcasts.

The bill also creates a new First Responder Network Authority to oversee the network, which would operate on a dedicated section of the 700-megahertz spectrum known as D Block.

Lawmakers said they had scored a major victory by including the network in a bill congressional leaders wanted to pass before taking next week off that extends unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut and prevents a looming 27 percent cut in doctors’ Medicare payments.

“Turning back is impossible,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said at a Capitol news conference. “Once we get an agreement to put this in formal legislation and a presidential signature, I can’t imagine anybody stepping up and saying we shouldn’t spend this much money. We’re talking about people’s lives here.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said firefighters would someday be able to see floor plans of burning buildings before they enter, police would be able to use handheld devices to access criminal histories, and emergency medical technicians would be able to send lifesaving information to emergency rooms from the road.

The money would not come from taxpayers but from communications companies that would buy parts of the former television spectrum to feed the public’s increasing demand for bandwidth for mobile devices.

On top of the $7 billion for the new network, the bill is expected to raise another $15 billion to offset the spending on unemployment benefits and Medicare.

Kean said he and other advocates had been preparing to wage a public campaign to get Congress to act on the safety network but were assured by leaders the issue would be resolved this year.

“The bottom line was to get it done,” Kean said. A key stumbling block in the past decade, Kean said, was television station owners who wanted compensation to give up the airwaves.

“That’s a tough lobby, they held it up,” Kean said. “One of the senators told me, and he was for it, ‘You don’t know how tough it is when people you need to get your message out in the district come to you and say don’t do this.’ ”

Broadcasters would get $1.75 billion for “relocation costs” under the bill, according to the Senate Finance Committee.

The available spectrum was a highly coveted source of revenue that some in Congress wanted to reduce the debt and others wanted to back new spending or extend tax cuts.

Rockefeller and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that when the spectrum was identified as one of the “pay-fors” to be used for the unemployment and Medicare extensions, they fought to ensure the safety network was included.

“There was an eleventh-hour scare when House Republicans wanted to allow the network to be created, but not give it any funding,” Schumer said. “We refused to go along.”

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