The Federal Communications Commission will auction off the sliver of radio spectrum used by America’s first responders in 2021, a move that would cripple emergency officials’ ability to do their jobs, according to a Government Accountability Office report released June 21.
Public safety entities — such as police, firefighters and emergency medical services — in 11 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas rely on a portion of spectrum known as the T-Band for mission-critical communications. They share the T-Band with business-industrial users.
As part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, the FCC is required to begin auctioning off the T-Band by February 2021. Public safety organizations will need to relocate their communications to another part of the spectrum within two years of the auction’s closure.
GAO recommended that Congress consider allowing public safety organizations to continue using the T-Band.
According to the report, public safety organizations would face significant challenges if forced to relocate.
“Public safety officials in New York City said they believe the T-Band auction would severely negatively affect their ability to respond to emergencies and could lead to the loss of lives,” the report read. “[And Boston] officials said that auctioning the T-Band and forcing them to relocate and build a new system over several years would disrupt critical public safety communications and be disastrous.”
GAO noted that the Act included little explanation for the reason behind reallocating and auctioning the T-Band.
“While one purpose of the spectrum auctions is to recover the public portion of the value of spectrum, FCC officials told us that the Act and its legislative history do not explain the purpose of the T-Band auction and relocation, and we confirmed the absence of legislative history for the auction mandate,” GAO said.
The watchdog also found that there is no alternative spectrum available for five out of the 11 metropolitan areas — Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles — to relocate to.
“In March 2019, FCC officials told us that based on their analysis, alternative spectrum relocation options for public safety users are limited or non-existent,” GAO said. “FCC found that other frequency bands are insufficient because existing public safety spectrum bands are already largely occupied; spectrum is heavily encumbered; or available spectrum is not viable for public safety due to interference.”
Relocating from the T-Band could also compromise interoperability, the crucial “ability of first responders and public safety officials to use their [systems] to communicate with each other across agencies and jurisdictions.” Without alternative spectrum to build new interoperable systems on, “public safety officials in multiple large metropolitan areas would be unable to communicate with first responders within their community, neighboring jurisdictions and the federal government.”
For example, the report said the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City in 2001 showed how many lives can be lost when first responders can’t easily communicate.
“As a result, officials said New York City has spent countless hours and millions of dollars to improve interoperability, and that the interoperable system currently in place is based on the T-Band,” the report read.
Officials from Boston also credited interoperable systems that relied on T-band “for the successful response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing … which allowed first responders in neighboring jurisdictions to provide additional communication equipment and personnel during the ensuing manhunt.”
The FCC estimated relocation costs to be as much as $6 billion, which is much less than the auction is predicted to reimburse to cover relocation costs. They estimated that the auction’s revenue would not exceed $2 billion.
GAO also noted that a revenue of $2 billion would only be possible if the entire T-Band was auctioned off, but the Act does not mention if business users, who in some places occupy more than half of the T-Band, were also required to relocate.
FCC officials said that “because of the high relocation costs and likely low value of the T-Band’s being auctioned, there is a strong likelihood auction proceeds would not cover public safety relocation costs.” GAO also noted that the legislation “did not address what would happen if the auction generated insufficient funds to cover relocation costs.”
According to the report, the FCC recognizes the challenges involved with the relocation, but plans to proceed with the T-Band auction unless the legislation is changed. The FCC told GAO they briefed Congress in March 2019 on their analysis that all T-Band auction scenarios would fail but did not suggest any changes to the law.
In January 2019, the Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act was introduced and referred to a House subcommittee, but no further action on that legislation has taken place.