Date of Original Version



Working Paper

Rights Management

All Rights Reserved

Abstract or Description

The events surrounding Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks demonstrated that the communications systems used by first responders in the United States are not adequate to meet the challenges of a post-9/11 world. The U.S. system is based on assumptions that local agencies should have maximal flexibility at the expense of standardization and regional coordination, that commercial carriers and municipal systems have little role to play, that public safety should not share spectrum or network infrastructure, and that narrowband voice applications should dominate. Many programs have been proposed to incrementally improve public safety communications systems, but without any fundamental changes to these policies, such incremental changes are likely to have limited impact.

However, a tremendous opportunity is coming thanks to the transition to digital television; 24 MHz of spectrum has been identified for reallocation from TV to public safety in 2009, roughly doubling the public safety spectrum below 2 GHz. Unless policymakers act, this new spectrum will be managed under these same old policies.

This paper explains why it is time for fundamental reform. Policy reforms should include some combination of: shifting some responsibility and authority for decisions about public safety communications infrastructure from many independent local government agencies to the federal government; further expanding the role of commercial service providers, municipal Wi-Fi networks, and other systems that serve the public; allowing public safety to share spectrum, and possibly multi-purpose network infrastructure as well, with other users; and further expanding capabilities beyond traditional voice communications. Since the TV band spectrum reallocated to public safety has few legacy systems that must be accommodated or moved, it is an excellent place to launch a new policy.


New America Foundation Working Paper 15

Included in

Engineering Commons