Obama to push spectrum development for first responders

Tuesday - 1/24/2012, 5:09am EST

Aneesh Chopra, federal chief technology officer

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This story was updated on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 2:58 a.m. EST

President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union speech Tuesday to call for the type of technology innovations that could finally lead to a public-safety broadband network, federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra said Monday.

On Sept. 11, 2001, emergency responders found that they couldn't communicate with each other. Despite the attention paid to the issue, the problem still remains.

"You and I have all these incredible group messaging tools, data analytics and 4G networks," Chopra told the audience at a forum sponsored by Politico Pro. "None of this is in the hands of first responders. They're using analog communications."

But, he said, "I'm very, very, very hopeful that we will finish the job on spectrum, and we'll do so in short order."

The dilemma is widely characterized as a political argument over whether public safety officials should control part of the broadband spectrum or borrow it from commercial providers during emergencies.

Aneesh Chopra, federal chief technology officer (AP photo)

But Chopra said the choice is not so black and white.

"The issue is falsely defined as saying that you have this random machinery over here and commercial mobile broadband network over there," he said. "We're saying emphatically one can have cake and eat it too."

Public safety officials are warming to the idea of operating an emergency communications system on commercial infrastructure, he said.

"What public safety really wanted more than anything else was the authority to say who gets access rights to the network," he said.

Technology advancements have solved that problem. Officials can secure the network through software controls rather than hardware design, he said.

Senate bill passes out of committee

On the national level, Chopra said he hoped Congress would attach provisions to legislation extending payroll tax cuts. The White House backs Senate Bill 911, a bipartisan effort to dedicate part of the spectrum to public safety, paid for by voluntary spectrum auctions. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has reported it to the full chamber, which has not voted on it. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has published a list of attributes that would govern the network's technical design.

"It embodies this principle that relies on commercial infrastructure," Chopra said. "We will innovate our way to a low-cost, high value public safety network."

Local governments have embraced the approach. Seattle and 10 other governments, he said, are moving ahead with plans to use commercially provided spectrum for emergencies.

The debate is economical as much as anything.

The federal government can't afford to build its own network, he said, but it can encourage companies to squeeze the most out of scarce airwaves.

"We need to find a way technologically to turn scarcity to abundance," he said. "We believe the promising future of spectrum sharing allows us to think differently about this asset so that it can be capable of supporting our needs not just in the immediate term but in the next decade and beyond."

With spectrum sharing, multiple wireless systems would share the same frequency band.

$100 billion from auctions?

The administration endorses voluntary spectrum auctions, in which companies with underused spectrum could let the government auction it off.

Auction winners, most likely wireless companies, would use the spectrum differently and more efficiently.

Chopra estimated that such auctions could unleash more than $100 billion in economic value.

Chopra says getting wireless right is the biggest tech policy issue today.

"What policy pays down the deficit, delivers on our first responders needs and frees up $100 billion of economic growth?" he said. "I mean this is a win-win-win."

Working out privacy issues on the cloud will be key to those wins. Chopra said the White House was finishing up privacy guidance.

"It's not heavy handed regulation. It's not 'do nothing,'" he said. "It calls on the industry to promote voluntary industry consensus standards activities that could be enforceable."

He says the administration will bring this view to talks on Capitol Hill.

He ended the conversation on a positive note. While one side of political Washington plays up the partisan bickering, a quieter side is reaching bipartisan consensus on technology policy, he said.

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