BATON ROUGE--A task force has recommended that the state auction part of a high-speed internet spectrum to service providers and businesses instead of using it only for public safety.
The high-speed spectrum could provide faster internet access to rural communities in Louisiana and expand the technological infrastructure in those areas. It also could ease the digital divide between residents who have access to broadband and those who do not.
The Federal Communications Commission allocated 50 megahertz of the high-speed internet spectrum, the 4.9 GHz spectrum, to Louisiana.
The FCC initially allowed the 4.9 GHz spectrum to be used for public-safety purposes, but only about 3.5% of the available licensees have been used. So last September, the commission expanded the possible uses of the band.
The Louisiana task force has met three times since then, debating whether it could allow business and consumer use of some of the spectrum without hampering public safety.
Firefighters and police officers around the state expressed concern that public usage of the spectrum could overload the bandwidth, causing miscommunication in an emergency.
During the final task force meeting last week, Michael Renatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriff's Association, testified that he and task force members were able to come to an agreement regarding the allocation of the bandwidth.
"We cannot predict a Katrina-like event," Renatza said. "In the event we have a catastrophic event such as that, we want to have additional space [in the bandwidth]."
Advocates for public usage of the spectrum were vocal as well. Eric Peterson, director of public policy at the Pelican Institute, read comments from T-Mobile, the giant wireless carrier, suggesting that the task force consider permitting, but not requiring, public safety agencies to sell some of their license rights to private companies.
In the end, the task force recommended that the state talk to the 21 parishes currently using the spectrum for public safety to see the amount of utilization. It also recommended that 10% of the allocated 50 megahertz remain available for public safety use during emergencies.
The 21 parishes that currently use the spectrum for public safety are:
Ascension, Bossier, Caddo, Calcasieu, De Soto, East Baton Rouge, Iberia, Jefferson,
Lafayette, Lafourche, Lincoln, Ouachita, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Tammany, Rapides, Terrebonne Parish and West Baton Rouge.
The remaining spectrum will be auctioned off in 10 megahertz blocks to businesses and service providers. There would be a three-year trial period that could be extended for two more years.
The task force will report recommendations to the Legislature, which will consider the issues this spring.
The task force also recommended that a new state Office of Broadband tell lawmakers by January 2023 how the utilization of the spectrum changes. Any revenue created through the auction of the spectrum will be given to the Office of Broadband to fund its operations.
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