WASHINGTON -- More spectrum and money for first responders is getting renewed Congressional interest in the backwash of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
As has repeatedly happened in natural disasters and terrorist attacks, emergency workers faced overwhelming odds in New Orleans: with virtually all power sources down and telecommunications networks smashed, first responders were working with outdated communications systems that lacked interoperability.
"Hurricane Katrina has exposed a number of vulnerabilities in U.S. infrastructure, one of them being crisis communications," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said a House hearing Thursday afternoon. "In the aftermath of Katrina, questions have been raised about how much progress has been made since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which uncovered major gaps in communications among federal, state and local officials."
Upton's conclusion: not much, despite more than a billion dollars spent this year alone on interoperability communications projects.
"Several years later, public safety is still grappling with inadequate spectrum and radio communication systems that do not communicate with one another," the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet said.
Upton added that despite the interoperability efforts made after Sept. 11, the United States was "still well behind the curve. We cannot sit back for another natural disaster or terrorist attack to strike. It's been four years since the attacks of Sept. 11, and as Katrina made us all acutely aware, sadly, we are far from where we need to be."
Upton said lawmakers must push broadcasters out of their 700 megahertz analog spectrum to clear airwaves for first responders.
That is hardly a new notion: anticipating that broadcasters would vacate the spectrum as they transitioned to digital broadcasting, Congress in 1996 directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make 24 megahertz of spectrum in the upper 700 megahertz band available for first responders. It hasn't happened.
Congress originally ordered the broadcasters out their analog spectrum by the end of this year, but the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) successfully lobbied for a rule change that created an uncertain date for vacating the spectrum.
The modified language said if more than 15 percent of the homes in a market could not receive a digital signal, the broadcasters could retain the analog spectrum. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell testified last year the rule would put off the digital television transition by at least a decade.
Upton said he and House Energy and Commerce Committee Joe Barton (R-Tex.) have spent "countless hours working to free that valuable spectrum for public safety by crafting legislation setting a hard date for spectrum return."
He added, "This a vital and necessary step that must occur to make interoperability a reality and we are committed to making it happen - sooner rather than later."
Under the legislation drafted but still not introduced by Barton, broadcasters will have until the end of 2008 to vacate the spectrum. Barton said Thursday the date certain legislation would likely be part of a telecom reform bill he hopes to introduce in the "next month or so."
"I'm disappointed that four years after Sept. 11, we still have so far to go," Barton said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced similar legislation in June.
While no one mentioned it Thursday, Republican lawmakers have an additional incentive to move the broadcasters out of their analog spectrum. In the light of the growing federal deficit, the House and Senate Republican leadership have directed the House and Senate Commerce Committees to find $4.8 billion each in new revenue to help slice the deficit.
While first responders will get a chunk of the spectrum left behind by the broadcasters, the majority of it will be auctioned off to wireless broadband providers for as much as $30 billion.