Law Agencies Look for Radio Waves

In June 2001, Denver police officers on a narcotics surveillance mission witnessed a suspect shoot another then flee down an alley. Officers chased the shooting suspect for a block before they were able to get through on their radios to call for backup.

In another instance, Denver officers responded to a "shots fired" call and found a victim slowly bleeding to death. Police tried to call for cover and get an ambulance on the scene but the police radios wouldn't work. Eventually, the victim died.

Public safety officials say they first noticed in 1999 that heavy cell-phone signal traffic on the airwaves was causing interference on public-safety radios. The problem stems from overcrowding on spectrum — the invisible bands high in the sky in which cell phones, radio, TV stations, public safety and various wireless devices operate.

Public safety portions of the spectrum are so close to others — particularly that of Nextel Communications — that overcrowding and interference is occurring.

"We've had numerous times out on the highway where officers simply can't transmit or they can't hear the dispatcher talk to them," said Steve Cooper, division chief of patrol for the Denver Police Department. "So all in all, you can see it creates a very dangerous situation."

Efforts by Nextel and public safety groups haven't been able to stop the bleeding of signals. Law enforcement groups and Capitol Hill lawmakers now say something needs to be done to solve the problem quickly.

"The bottom line is you've got to stand shoulder to shoulder with public safety," Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., told New York is one of the cities that has had mounting concerns about the blocked radio lines.

The Federal Communications Commission (search) normally auctions off spectrum to wireless companies and others. But now, in an effort to resolve the problem, the commission is contemplating a trade-off proposal from Nextel.

Nextel wants higher-range spectrum, where more advanced cellular services operate, so it can use those frequencies if it migrates to new technologies. In return, it will give up its current bands and contribute $850 million to the cost of reorganizing the spectrum so all public safety is on one end and re-tuning all public-safety radios for those frequencies.

"It doesn't work if you try to keep everybody on," said Nextel spokeswoman Lee Horner, who described cramming everyone on that band as "packing a minivan as much as you can, locking the doors shut and saying, 'everyone rearrange themselves' … that doesn't work."

Nextel's plan, dubbed the "consensus plan," has the support of groups like the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (search), who say that company has gone further than any other in addressing the problem.

But critics of the plan, such as the National Taxpayers Union (search) and Cingular Wireless, say the plan will give Nextel unfair market advantage. They want the FCC to put the spectrum up for auction, where they say it can rake in anywhere from $3 billion to $5 billion.

"The plan currently under consideration by the FCC would take three years, in the best case scenario, to reduce radio interference, and additional steps thereafter to eliminate public safety interference," said Travis Larson, spokesman for Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (search). "So we're talking about well over three years to end what could be a life-threatening problem for public safety officials."

Verizon told the FCC Thursday that it would pay at least $5 billion for the spectrum Nextel wants if an auction was held. It may consider legal action if the auction isn't held, Verizon officials said.

Consensus plan critics like Verizon say it would be better to fix problems where they arise. Their alternative, known as the "balanced approach plan," tries to resolve interference within 60 days of being reported at no cost to public safety.

Microsoft doesn't throw out Windows and start from scratch when there's a problem, Larson pointed out, but "instead, they issue patches which are picked up by IT managers to fix problems. … It's best to focus on the limited and specific problems as opposed to scrapping the entire system."

The FCC says, however, that while various cell-phone companies like Verizon and others would surely like to be able to bid on the spectrum themselves, fixing the public safety problems is of paramount concern. The commission could take up the spectrum-swap issue next Thursday.

"I understand the argument that people don't like the idea this is 10 megahertz [of available spectrum] that could be used by other wireless carriers if the commission decided to auction it," an FCC official told But "we have the authority to do what we have to do to protect public safety."

Some groups and lawmakers are concerned the consensus plan won't provide enough money to fix everything.

The Nextel offer "is far short of what would be needed to replace literally millions of radios that would be rendered obsolete by the plan's massive spectrum realignment forcing public safety communications onto new channels," Art Gordon, national executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (search), said in a recent letter to President Bush.

Lawmakers like Fossella and Rep. Richard Boucher, D-Va., and cities like New York are worried taxpayers will end up footing the bill.

"An analogy that's appropriate here is saying, 'We're gonna give the police department better police cars and the fire department better fire engines but we're not going to give them the money for the gas,'" Fossella said.

"I think a legitimate question is, who's going to pay for the full transition if the money isn't there under the plan?" the Staten Island congressman continued, adding that some estimates put the cost of reorganizing and re-tuning public safety frequencies at $1 billion. "I want to do as much as possible to make sure these agencies, cities and states and taxpayers aren't left holding the bag upwards to the tune of $1 billion."

The FCC official said if the agency decides to adopt the consensus plan, it will likely require more money from Nextel than $850 million.

But public safety officials say $850 million is better than nothing and that the government has to find some way to make up the difference.

"When you're talking about public safety officers dealing with life and death situations," Cooper said, "I don't care where the money comes from, someone needs to fix it."