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Keynote Address of Commissioner Gloria Tristani
before the 64th Annual Conference of the
Association of Public Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
August 10, 1998

Thank you. Thank you for that warm welcome.

I am truly delighted and honored to be here with you today, at the opening of your sixty-fourth annual conference. Delighted, because I have the opportunity to welcome you to my home, the city of Albuquerque. They might have told you that I now work at the FCC in Washington. But, as I am sure you'll appreciate by the end of your week here, once you live in New Mexico, the old adage "home is where the heart is," really rings true. So, again, welcome.

I am honored to have this chance to speak with you. In some ways, the work that you do, and the work that I do, are similar. We just go about it differently. You see, in creating the FCC 64 years ago, Congress directed that the Commission should exist for the purpose of promoting the safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communications. We've been doing that for 64 years, and so have you.

There is nothing that so clearly embodies the public interest as public safety. So I am here to lend you my support, to celebrate the work that you do, and the lives that you help save, each and every day.

You are aware, like me, of some of the tragedies of failed communications -- where our public safety officers did not have the resources, the equipment, or the spectrum, that they needed, to do the job that they were trained and wanted to do.

There are too many examples of lives lost, of suspects who got away, of natural disasters stemmed slower than might have been. You know far better than I. You and your colleagues are the ones who put your lives at risk. Your radio may be your lifeline. And your ability to communicate with each other may be the lifeline of those you save.

We all know the stories. There are stories of simple lack of communication. Like the officers who stopped a man who kidnapped, and later murdered, a little girl. Who stopped him from trespassing, and who thought his behavior odd. But, who had no cause to hold him, because they had no immediate access to his criminal record, and they could not hear the announcement of the kidnapping, broadcast by another department, on a different channel.

Or, like the local rescue workers who recently responded to a terrible car crash near a military base. One of the vehicles was badly crushed and the "Jaws of Life" was called in to cut the frame of the car and release the driver. When the "Jaws of Life" blew a hydraulic hose, a desperate call went out for a replacement. One was found thirty minutes away, but by the time it arrived, the driver had died. Only then did rescue personnel discover a spare hose, sitting the whole time in a military truck, not one hundred yards away, but unused because the military units were on a different radio system and they couldn't hear the distress call.

Then there are the stories of complex maneuverings to communicate. Stories where a pair of radios and an open channel would have done the trick. Like the runners who risked their own lives to personally convey messages to the emergency workers in Oklahoma City. Like command control officers during the California wildfires, who had to relay the communications of dozens of departments, because those departments could not speak directly.

So we all know of tragedies where the course of events might have been different -- had only our first responders had the tools they needed. The safety of life and property often cling to a thin thread -- the thread of a consistent, accurate and reliable communication system. Such a system must be built from the building blocks of adequate resources and of standardized tools and procedures. But today we have a "patchwork quilt" of spectrum for public safety -- 23 MHz of spectrum, or 941 channels, pieced together from across 6 bands, from the VHF low band all the way up to 800 MHz. Of course, no single radio can operate across all of these bands. Any radio capable of that, I'm afraid, would be the size of a city bus!

So, these scattered allocations and fragmented systems have meant one thing -- that local, state and federal officers often cannot talk with one another.

Yet we also know that minutes mean lives. Four minutes after cardiac arrest, the brain begins to die. Every year, 42,000 people die in automobile crashes, 20,000 before receiving hospital care. And a fire doubles in scope every fifteen seconds. Minutes do mean lives.

So, what do we do?

There are funding issues; there are coordination issues. APCO is certainly taking the lead in these things, and you have much to be proud of. I am astonished by the work that you do, by the leadership that you show, in hours squeezed from evenings and weekends, after your "day jobs" are over, because you recognize the valuable role that APCO plays. Let me reiterate -- the planning and coordinating and educating that you do is critical work. Let me thank you, and your families, for the sacrifices that you make.

But there are also things that the FCC has done, can do, and will do, to support you in all that you seek to accomplish. To make sure that you have the right tools.

What I'd like to talk with you about today is a ground-breaking action that the FCC took just last Thursday. We have paved the way for the licensing of an additional 24 MHz of public safety spectrum -- spectrum that fully doubles your current allocations.

I know that the public safety community has identified three critical issues in the area of spectrum: (1) insufficient frequencies overall; (2) the need for interoperability among diverse agencies and jurisdictions; and (3) the need for future flexibility to avail yourselves of new developments in technology. Our service and licensing rules for this new 24 MHz will give you tools to meet these needs. So, I'd like to talk with you about this spectrum, to tell you about some of the ground rules we've set forth, and what this spectrum will allow you to do. And then I'd like to talk with you about the future.

For starters, what will this additional spectrum allow you to do?

The most basic need, perhaps the most critical need, for most departments is additional voice channels. This goes to the core of your day-to-day communications. So, the bulk of new channels will go to traditional voice and data. But we've also incorporated a great deal of flexibility into the rules, to allow for image, high speed data, and video. This will permit you to take advantage of some great applications -- to exchange mugshots or fingerprints, architectural diagrams or medical information, all by means of a mobile data terminal or a laptop computer.

The idea is that we've set the most basic parameters -- a channelization plan with both broadband and narrowband, with building block channels that you can use, combine, or recombine to suit your needs.

So, most of the spectrum will be set aside for what we call general use -- spectrum that you will be able to allocate roughly as you see fit. In addition, 2.6 MHz, or just over 10% of this new spectrum, will be dedicated to interoperability. This may cover day-to-day coordination, as many local agencies now engage in. But it will also allow for a broader scale interoperability, among local and state and federal partners, for tactical planning and emergency response.

A National Coordinating Committee will be appointed to advise the FCC on adopting a national interoperability plan and technical standards. I very much hope -- and encourage you to participate in this process. This system will be the first of its kind, designed from scratch, for the express purpose of allowing police and fire, EMS and state patrol, FEMA and forestry conservation, to communicate with one another. Only your input into the system's design can guarantee its utility.

The next question, then, is how are we to bring this all about? In this rulemaking, one of my guideposts was to seek a careful balancing between national standardization and regional flexibility to address the unique needs of diverse communities all across this land. The planning process should -- it must -- recognize and reflect how our public safety agencies actually operate. How they deliver services and protect our lives each and every day.

That is why we've taken a minimal approach toward standardization and technical requirements -- the minimum necessary to help push competition in the equipment market, and to facilitate a seamless, nationwide, interoperable network for that small portion of the allocation. And that is why, for the general use spectrum, we've chosen to continue with a regional planning approach. The Regional Planning Committees will customize the plan and set the details for actual use of the spectrum. This should ensure an open process, one that is responsive to local needs.

In a further notice, we've also sought comment on a new idea for licensing 8.8 MHz of the spectrum that is held in reserve. This considers whether there would be any benefit to an increased role for states in the planning and licensing process. Specifically, the notice asks whether a portion of the 24 MHz should be licensed directly to the office of the governor of each state. The idea is that a state would facilitate development of multi-agency, advanced technology, wide-area systems. And some suggest that state involvement might ease funding concerns.

Let me be clear. Personally, I'm a bit skeptical, though I have agreed with my colleagues to go ahead and seek comment on the notion. But I have a lot of questions that need to be answered before I would think it a good idea to depart from the regional planning process. Today, states participate in regional planning alongside towns, cities, and counties. As equal members.

In thinking about change, then, my questions center around issues of autonomy, accountability, and responsibility. Who knows your community's needs better that you -- who are working in the field every day to save lives, avert emergencies, and stop crime? And, I have yet to hear from a state that has asked to assume this role.

Certainly the goals and challenges that we have ahead of us require -- if we are to meet them -- that we think creatively. So, I welcome comment on these ideas. But any drastic change to the regional planning process must demonstrate to me that it will result in greater responsiveness to the communities' needs -- that it will result in even better delivery of public safety services to our families. So I ask that you think about what will best serve your needs. And please come educate us about what changes, if any, could improve the planning and licensing processes for public safety spectrum.

So, there's a new 24 MHz on the horizon. But, as you know better than I, even this historic allocation of 24 MHz is not an answer to all of your needs. First, I must acknowledge that there is the proverbial fly in the ointment. This is the transition to digital television. But I believe we've got a fly swatter in hand.

You see, Congress passed a statute to provide for this spectrum by clearing the bands now used by TV channels 60-69. During the transition from analog television to digital, TV stations will clear off this band. But of course, there has to be time for transition. Currently Congress has set the deadline for the year 2006, but it also created a potentially large loophole when it provided for delay if 85% of the population in the station's area has not switched over to the new digital technology.

This is not something we can control. But let me tell you a bit about the scope of the problem, and what we have done to contain it. For many rural states, such as New Mexico, this will not be a problem, because there are no TV stations in these channels. Instead, this will affect heavily urban areas, like New York and Los Angeles. Unfortunately these urban areas also often suffer from the worst congestion of public safety spectrum.

But there are a couple of things the FCC has done to help ease this transition, and to allow access to this spectrum as soon as possible. Once this spectrum was dedicated to public safety, we immediately stopped all TV licensing in these bands. And the particular channels selected for public safety -- TV channels 63, 64, 68, and 69 -- were selected precisely because they have the fewest stations on them. In addition, we are considering flexible channelization during the transition period, so that you can work with whatever spectrum happens to be free in your area. Hopefully this will help. But we all need to remain vigilant. Congress and your local broadcasters need to know how vital access to this spectrum is. And at the FCC, we will keep the broadcasters feet to the fire.

This 24 MHz is the beginning of a true, nationwide, public safety wireless network. I say "beginning" because much remains to be done.

We know that we will need to find a substantial amount of additional spectrum, in order to carry public safety safely into the next century. Part of that, I believe, should be to facilitate interoperability below 512 MHz. The vast majority of state and local law enforcement and fire agencies use the high VHF band for their primary voice communications. Our new 700 MHz band is great, but the truth is that the majority of operations will continue to exist in the VHF and UHF bands for some time to come. Propagation characteristics are good there, and there is already a huge embedded base of equipment.

In last Thursday's rulemaking, we sought comment on ideas to promote interoperability below 512 MHz. I'm particularly intrigued by the recent NPSTC Petition for reallocation of 3 MHz in the 138-144 band. This spectrum has been targeted by the Department of Commerce for reallocation from the federal government for commercial auctions. But, the Commission has also been directed by Congress to consider the needs of public safety when we determine what frequencies to auction. Though the issues are far from resolved, this is one I'll be looking at very closely.

Beyond additional spectrum, additional money would be nice. Unfortunately, that's not one I can help you with. We have no jurisdiction over funding, but we can and will be supportive, and lend our expertise. In particular, we've been participating in the Interagency Working Group on Funding for public safety communications systems. As part of Vice-President Gore's National Performance Review, this group has been assessing public safety's funding needs. We are looking forward to a report with some good initiatives to be released soon. Luckily Attorney General Reno has been a great friend and advocate for the public safety community, and she has made your communications needs a top priority.

I've been talking with you today about tools -- and how we in the federal government can help to provide you the tools you need. Of course, that's just part of the package. Spectrum, no matter how much, will get us nowhere without your hard work and efforts.

APCO, of course, has a history of pulling the laboring oar. I've got to say, you've been doing a tremendous job in Washington, educating law and policy makers. On a personal note, I've always enjoyed my meetings with Joe McNeil, and now Jack Keating. And I'm also really pleased by the recent Agreement that we've reached, under which APCO will take the lead in resolving interference complaints affecting public safety spectrum.

So, you are the ones to pick up that oar yet again -- to take this 700 MHz band and make sure that it is put to use for the benefit of all Americans. There are long months of planning and education, collaboration and coordination ahead. This 24 MHz hold great potential. And I look forward to continuing to work with you, to make sure that that promise is met.

Thank you for having me here today.

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