Ten years after 9/11, communications technology for first responders still shaky

Firefighters watch as smoke rises from the site of the World Trade Center collapse September 11, 2001 in New York City after two hijacked airplanes crashed into the twin towers in a terrorist attack.

Russo, who has since retired and now runs a company called Elerts, says, "Where I worked, on the back side of what was left of the north tower, we did recovery, below-grade recovery there. And what we did was we used safety lines and we communicated verbally during recovery. Quite honestly, those were the times we used hand signals and had to relay messages across an enormous debris field."

Personal communications technology has come a long way in 10 years. The cell phone has become ubiquitous, the smartphone has emerged. Text messaging didn't even exist in its current form 10 years ago. But along with the boom of available communications, has come a concurrent boom in usage of those technologies. That means when there is a major event, the system can't always withstand the capacity it's being asked to carry.

In recent weeks, we've seen huge failures in the cell phone networks over the surprising but relatively minor earthquake on the East Coast. Cell coverage fared a little better during Hurricane Irene but people had days to prepare for that one. But imagine a large scale unexpected emergency, one where people's lives are at stake. Not necessarily a terrorist attack, but something rapid and dangerous.

That's why a lot of attention is being focused on what's called the D-Block. It's a part of the radio spectrum originally set aside for television broadcasting although it has proven to be largely unnecessary for that purpose. There has been longstanding ongoing discussion in Washington about what to do with the D-Block. One idea is to use it as a communications channel for emergency first responders to power radios, cameras and other devices that use wireless data. It's a powerful frequency because it can penetrate walls and get in to places that many other parts of the spectrum can't.

The public would not have access to the bandwidth. And that, according to Benjamin Lennett of the Open Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, is "part of problem. It doesn't solve the other issue in this which is our networks in general are not capable of providing emergency communications for the public when catastrophes or natural disasters occur."

In fact, there's nothing on the table at the moment for increased capacity for regular people, aside from the carriers' rolling out of 4G networks.

But making the D-Block available is no sure thing. Tony Romm of Politico tells us that there are two camps regarding the future of this space and they don't quite break down on party lines. "One camp that says we should take this chunk of spectrum known as D-Block and give that directly to public safety. And they would pay for that by taking airwaves from the broadcasters that have been volunteered by broadcasters and auctioning them off. So some of the money goes to the network and some of the money goes to the federal government. But there's this other camp that says, wait a minute, public safety already has the spectrum, they're just not using it efficiently. So let's not give the D-Block to public safety, let's auction it off to commercial carriers and also use the incentive auction plan which means more money for fed government."

Romm says the future of D-Block is tied to the larger fiscal issues in Washington: "The big talk in Washington now is about this so-called super committee, which has to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in new cuts. We're already talking about including this issue with D-Block and spectrum reform in with what the Super Committee is doing. And that's not because they're interested in first responders and their needs. It's mostly because this proposal could net billions of dollars in new revenue."

The camp that wants to allocate it includes House and Senate Democrats, President Obama and some Republicans in Congress as well. The camp that wants to sell it includes other Republicans in Congress.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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