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Committee hears support for nationwide broadband for first responders

By Jim Barnett, CNN
  • New York police commissioner says existing systems are "fast becoming obsolete"
  • "First responders still find themselves ill-equipped," a consultant says
  • The administration plan calls for developing a separate network for public safety units

Washington (CNN) -- A Democratic plan to build a nationwide, interoperable broadband network is essential to public safety, according to members of a panel testifying at a Senate committee hearing who are calling for a new model for wireless communications.

"Today, a 16-year-old with a smart phone has a more advanced communications capability than a police officer or deputy carrying a radio," said Raymond Kelly, New York City's police commissioner. "Given the technology that is available and the complexity of the threat we face, that is unacceptable. It will only change if we succeed in building a nationwide broadband network to a mission-critical grade of service."

A new and expanded network would allow public safety officials to remotely access criminal databases, distribute surveillance video feeds to on-scene personnel and receive high-speed file downloads such as floor plans for burning buildings.

Kelly told lawmakers that existing communications systems are "fast becoming obsolete."

He cited the Times Square attempted bombing incident last May as an incident that had the potential to become more complicated because the robots deployed were controlled by thin fiber-optic cables that had to navigate around fire hoses.

A wireless broadband network would reduce those worries, Kelly said.

"Tragedy knows no boundaries. Emergencies occur every day in urban and rural communities across the country," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "Whether it's terrorism or a tornado, or a brush fire, one thing rings universally true: When an emergency happens, we rely on first responders like police, firefighters and public safety officials to keep us from harm."

Public safety proponents told the committee first responders need the tools to more effectively do their jobs.

The Obama administration has endorsed a Rockefeller proposal allocating 10 megahertz of the spectrum known as the "D-block" to public safety officials.

Joe Hanna, president of Directions Inc., which provides consulting services to the wireless industry and public safety agencies, also spoke in favor of the proposal.

"It is inexcusable that almost 10 years following the tragic events of September 11 and the carnage inflicted upon the residents of the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, America's first responders still find themselves ill-equipped to communicate to the degree they need and deserve," Hanna said.

The Democratic initiative calls for roughly doubling the wireless spectrum available for mobile broadband, freeing up 500 megahertz.. It calls for the federal government to spend $5 billion -- managed by the Federal Communications Commission -- to support wireless expansion into rural areas.

Nearly $11 billion would be allocated to help develop a separate national wireless network specifically for first responders and other public safety officials.

"We live in New York every day with the specter of another attack," testified Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. King said a wireless broadband network is "critically important" and "exactly what America's first responders have long advocated."