Both the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee’s emergency preparedness, response, and communications subcommittee expressed concern today about the fate of first responder communications in major metropolitan areas, including New York, when they are forced to migrate their wireless communications out of the T-band in the coming years.
The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 required the FCC to reallocate and auction public safety spectrum in the T-band by 2021 and relocate incumbents by 2023. Proceeds from the auction can be used to cover the relocation costs of public safety licensees. The T-band encompasses TV channels 14-20 (470-512 megahertz). It is used by public safety entities in 11 markets.
During a hearing today, subcommittee Chairman Dan Donovan (R., N.Y.), expressed concern in his opening statement that there are “not sufficient alternative bands for these [first responder communications] to rely on.” Chairman Donovan also expressed concern about cybersecurity risks to public safety communications. “We must be sure our nation’s first responders are aware of cybersecurity threats,” he said.
Ranking member Donald M. Payne (D., N.J.) said in his opening statement that he too is “concerned about the requirement that first responders in certain metropolitan areas vacate the T-band by 2023.” He also said he is “concerned [about] the dwindling number of full-time SWICs,” or statewide interoperability coordinators.
Witness Ronald Hewitt, director of the Office of Emergency Communications in the Department of Homeland Security and a retired U.S. Coast Guard admiral, said in his testimony that it is difficult for SWICS, who are responsible for a state’s land mobile radio communications, to coordinate with other state agencies that are responsible for other types of communications. He noted that his office began working with the National Governors Association last year to improve coordination.
Witness Ed Parkinson, director–government affairs at the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), acknowledged that “there are areas where we still need to do a better job,” including engagement with tribal authorities. “We ask that going forward, you judge us by our network,” he said.
Witness Mark Goldstein, director–physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office, which released a report in June on FirstNet, said that tribal stakeholders had expressed concern that FirstNet has not engaged directly with them, and that in responding to the draft report, FirstNet agreed to do so.
Chairman Donovan asked the witnesses about the T-band issue, noting that a report by the National Safety Council has found that “there is insufficient spectrum for first responders to move to.”
Mr. Hewitt said, “The T-band auction has been a major concern of the SAFECOM group. … We’re reviewing that. We’re working with the FCC which is required to do that, looking at their options.”
Mr. Parkinson suggested that lawmakers should address questions on the issue, including the magnitude of the spectrum shortfall that public safety agencies are facing, to the FCC.
Mr. Hewitt said, “There is not spectrum in those major metro areas to move that traffic to.”
Chairman Donovan also asked about cybersecurity for public safety communications.
Mr. Hewitt said, “We’ve been working with public safety through SAFECOM about cybersecurity,” including how to educate public safety and “getting them ready so as FirstNet deploys, they’ll be able to keep a safe network.”
Chairman Donovan asked whether there is an information-sharing system for first responders on cybersecurity incidents.
Mr. Hewitt said there is an office for SWICs to communicate on that issue.
Rep. Payne asked about the cause and effect of the decline in dedicated SWICs.
Mr. Hewitt said, “We’re down to 12 [states with full-time SWICs] now; we were at a high of 44.” He attributed the decline in full-time SWICs, at least in part, to the end of dedicated grants for that purpose, although he noted that it is an allowable expense under other funding. “We are working with the FEMA grants program … to look at what the possibilities are,” he added.
Rep. Payne asked for an assessment of the performance of public safety communications during the current hurricane season.
Mr. Hewitt said that Hurricane Harvey was “primarily a rain event in Houston” and “we were able to pre-position … a lot of communications equipment.”
In contrast, for Hurricane Maria, “in the islands, it was impossible to pre-position” equipment because “winds were much higher. … With Level 5 [hurricanes], every tower —if it wasn’t knocked down,” its antennas were misaligned. “Once you get [equipment] there, the roads were totally knocked out,” he added. Still, he said, “six out of 10 citizens [in Puerto Rico] have cellular today.”
Chairman Donovan also asked how public safety communications performed during recent hurricanes.
Mr. Hewitt said, “We haven’t received full after-incident reports yet.” He noted that in Key West, public safety officials told citizens in advance that they were evacuating and wouldn’t be able to respond to 911 calls. In Texas, he said, the inability to respond to 911 calls “wasn’t due to communications; it was due to safety-of-life” concerns that precluded sending first responders out during the height of the storm. Mr. Hewitt also noted that “with land mobile radio, direct communications [between radios] are possible even if towers are down.”
Rep. Payne asked whether FirstNet will be financially self-sustainable.
Mr. Parkinson said FirstNet believes the business model “will sustain the network in perpetuity.”
Mr. Goldstein, however, said that it “remains unclear at this time whether the network will be sustainable.” He added, “It depends on how it is built out. It depends on competitors – Verizon has decided it will compete.”
Mr. Parkinson responded, “I understand that there are concerns. … With any project, with any business, there is risk,” but he said that FirstNet has been able to shift risk to its network partner, AT&T, Inc.
Rep. Jim Langevin (D., R.I.) asked how FirstNet will keep up with technological changes.
Mr. Parkinson said that “public safety is now going to be able to be at the forefront” of technological change with FirstNet.
Rep. Martha McSally (R., Ariz.) asked how FirstNet will benefit very small communities like those in her district that struggle with border control responsibilities, yet are unable to communicate with federal border control agents. “Is the vision that they’re going to be able to subscribe to FirstNet and that’s going to be their solution?” she asked.
Mr. Parkinson said that FirstNet will support BYOD, or bring your own device, so that first responders in those communities will be able to use their personal phones and other devices on the FirstNet network.
Chairman Donovan noted that 27 states or territories have opted into FirstNet. He asked if the rest are reluctant.
Mr. Parkinson said that governors have until Dec. 28 to make their decisions. “We expect more to come in,” he said. —Lynn Stanton, firstname.lastname@example.org