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D Block Revolutionizes Public-Safety Communications

Signed into law on February 22, the Spectrum Act gives public safety the means by which to construct a nationwide public-safety broadband network. This will bring public-safety communications into the 21st century, giving firefighters, EMS responders and law-enforcement officers the same capability enjoyed today by the many citizens who use cellular mobile devices.

The new network will give fire officials the capability to use video and high-speed data for incident command as well as daily operations. The network will not have voice capability at the outset.

The nationwide public-safety broadband network is a new paradigm in public safety communications. This is big; well done to everyone who helped make this a reality!

Following are the Spectrum Act provisions you need to know about.

D Block to Public Safety

Key elements of any public-safety communications system are capacity, control and being mission-critical. The new law ensures these by removing the D Block from the FCC auction and adding it directly to the spectrum currently licensed to public safety. The D Block and the public safety block are immediately adjacent to one another, making the spectrum contiguous.

The 10 MHz of D Block coupled with 10 MHz of PSST spectrum gives public safety 20 MHz of spectrum, the capacity needed to fully utilize the new 4G technology (long-term evolution) that major carriers have introduced to the commercial market.

Public safety, as the single license holder, will control the network. This is important since commercial carriers, while acceptable for secondary use, simply aren’t reliable when transmissions must go through. Commercial carriers can’t offer priority access and ruthless preemption to public-safety users.

Public safety will be able to construct its network to mission-critical requirements, such as hardened towers, adequate backup power, redundancy and other features. Additionally, satellite capability is envisioned for public safety as backup for inoperative terrestrial towers and to provide coverage in remote areas. It’s essential that the new public-safety network be mission-critical at the start to enable the smooth transition of mission-critical voice in the future.


The amount provided for network construction is $7 billion. A state and local implementation fund of $135 million is also created for grants to help state, local and tribal governments with the build-out. This will come from newly created incentive auctions over the next several years. This is new money, not from annual congressional appropriations, so there is no impact on the budget.

The law allows $2 billion to be available immediately through borrowing authority so construction may begin before the incentive auctions. Congress, the Administration and public safety understand that the network will cost significantly more. But $7 billion is a very good start and will get construction well underway.


The Spectrum Act sets up the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) as a separate entity located in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the Department of Commerce.

The governing board consists of 15 members. The three permanent members are the secretary of Homeland Security, the attorney general and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The other 12 members will be selected by the secretary of Commerce.

At least three of the public members must have professional public-safety experience and at least three must be representative of states, localities, tribes and territories. All 12 public members must have expertise in networks, technology, finance or public safety.

The administrator of NTIA has extensively interviewed key organizations concerning these 12 board positions; the leadership of the IAFC is directly involved. The announcement of the board is expected in July; August 20 is the statute deadline for standing up FirstNet.

Spectrum Give Back

The new law also requires that spectrum in the T Band be given back. This is a requirement Congress imposed on public safety for the D Block and funding. Public safety operates in the T Band in eleven major markets. See T Band and the Fire Service in this issue for more information on this requirement.

Alan Caldwell is the former senior advisor to the IAFC’s government relations department.

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