Time-Out on T-Band: It’s Time to Repeal the Sale Mandate

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(ITC Fire- Deer Park, Texas. Photo Credit: KTRK Channel 13, Houston)

In 2012, as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Act, Congress passed legislation requiring by February 2021 that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) begin competitive auction of the T-band spectrum and relocate the licenses of public safety agencies across the country which have relied on the spectrum for decades. The band consists of otherwise unused broadcast spectrum in certain TV channels. That previously unused resource is now put to good use day-to-day in 11 cities by 925 public safety entities and 700 industrial stakeholders. A review by at least two federal agencies deems the legislatively mandated sale of the spectrum to private interests as “unviable.” Beyond unviable, the forced sale is unnecessary, costly and dangerous.

Currently, T-Band offers mission-critical push-to-talk communications capabilities for local government, law enforcement, fire service, medical, transportation, public works and other core functions. Its use by the industrial sector is also vital during both typical and catastrophic industrial incidents when communication and coordination are key. For emergency management to succeed, our first responders must have the tools they need to be successful. Communication is the backbone to success in the field.

While most large urban cities and counties do not rely on T-Band for their more robust public safety agencies many suburban, rural and under-resourced fire departments do. In places like Texas, Harris County specifically, those departments are on the outskirts of the urban center and are quickly becoming more populated. The demands on them and the populations they serve are growing exponentially. The mandated sale would exacerbate those pressures and impose impossible budget costs.

The use of T-Band by industrial stakeholders has legitimate public value. Industry harnesses the spectrum for incident communications. Typical industrial incidents require close communication and coordination to contain them effectively. Local first responders and hazardous material specialists are often looped in that communication. Taking T-Band away takes away that lifeline. The size, scale and complexity of major industrial accidents require that industry partners have the T-Band spectrum at the ready. The recent TPC Group plant explosion that lasted for several days near Beaumont and the historic catastrophic Intercontinental Terminal Company (ITC) fire that lasted for several weeks in the Houston area are just two reminders from this year alone that relied on T-Band to keep industry, first responders and emergency management officials on the same page.

In sheer numbers, according to the Government Accounting Office, the revenues of the mandated sale would not generate enough funding to cover the costs of relocating and migrating the public safety agencies that use T-Band. In practicality, the FCC would be better served by focusing on more useful 2020 auctions that will result in meaningful gains in areas like 5G. At present, the FCC has been forced to suspend processing of licenses and renewals for use of T-Band by public safety. This leaves police and fire departments in limbo, and the FCC on a legislatively mandated course toward an inevitable technical and fiscal train wreck at the direction of Congress.

T-Band spectrum is currently allocated to areas of Boston, Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco/Oakland, Pittsburgh and Washington DC.

The path toward a mandated sale of T-Band is unworkable. The workable solution is for Congress to act swiftly to repeal the mandated sale. The biggest cost from a failure to do so is the ability of fire, police and industry stakeholders to talk to each other when lives are in the balance.

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Francisco Sanchez | @DisasterPIO

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