SOUTH PORTLAND — Maine’s residents are fortunate to live in one of the safest states in the country. Distance from the crime that is rampant in other parts of the country is one of the distinct pleasures of living here. This is a testament to the character of the people of this state, as well as the superb service that our public safety officers provide.

Maintaining this impressive status is an ongoing battle that requires constant improvement on the part of first responders when they react to emergencies. We are, however, unable to be fully self-sufficient in these efforts. Working together 24/7 to keep Mainers safe, emergency responders in the Pine Tree State need the support of all of us in order to fulfill their missions.

One area where help is needed is in the creation of a modern communications network. Our outdated “patchwork” infrastructure for public safety communications networks is unsuitable for increasingly sophisticated responses and seamless coordination. During a crisis, ineffective communications can have consequences ranging from a disorganized response to loss of life.

The worst example of this occurred during the 9/11 tragedy when more than 100 firefighters died after the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.

All of those heroes could have survived if not for their outdated technology, which did not pick up police radio warnings about the imminent collapse of the tower.

More than a decade after that catastrophe, Congress heeded the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and authorized a nationwide wireless network dedicated for first responders: FirstNet.

It will use “long-term evolution” technology and connect emergency responders to a faster, more seamless, more functional network. This quantum leap will finally bring law enforcement technology up to speed with what ordinary Americans can buy in a store.

This fact has made it even more frustrating for emergency responders to fall behind technologically. Anyone in Maine can walk into a store or go on the Internet and order a cellphone that operates on a long-term evolution network that makes current first responder equipment look insufficient.

As outgoing New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has testified before Congress, “Today, a 16-year-old with a smartphone has a more advanced communications capability than a police officer or deputy carrying a radio.” If day-to-day life has outstripped first responders’ ability to keep up, it is unquestionably time for an upgrade.

This much-needed advance will not happen soon if FirstNet does not receive the $7 billion in funding it needs. This funding is slated to come from the proceeds of spectrum auctions that will be held by the Federal Communications Commission.

The auction involves television broadcasters selling some of their airwaves to the FCC, which will then auction it for mobile broadband use. Many wireless companies are expected to turn out in force to bid on the spectrum, the limited resource that is the invisible infrastructure of their networks.

Although the auctions should raise $7 billion for FirstNet’s buildout, two well-known forces in the wireless industry are trying to shape the rules for the incentive auction to their own advantage. This could imperil the auction and put FirstNet on hold.

Both academic research and past experience have established how restrictions lower the amount of spectrum that an auction will sell and the amount of money it can raise. If the FCC allows Sprint and T-Mobile to rewrite the rules, then they could drastically hurt FirstNet’s chances of getting up and running.

The alternative – which is consistent with what Congress intended when it passed the law authorizing the creation of FirstNet – is for the FCC to hold an incentive auction that allows all participants to bid freely. This is a much better option and should ensure FirstNet has what it needs from a funding perspective to become an active law enforcement tool sooner rather than later.

The brutal lesson of 9/11 showed the need for a major overhaul in first responder communications. We are finally on the verge of a breakthrough that will benefit Maine and the rest of the nation.

In order for FirstNet to become reality, however, we need the FCC to set up an auction that does not restrict bidding. The FCC must prioritize the safety of Maine’s residents over the political goals of billion-dollar companies.

— Special to the Press Herald