Opening a spectrum previously reserved for public safety to the private sector could help bring high-speed wireless internet service to unserved areas, officials said last week.

Expanding internet access has been a hot topic among lawmakers in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic as remote meetings have become vital to daily life. Some first responders, however, worry that allowing commercial users on the spectrum could interfere with their communications, which could put lives and property at risk.

The Federal Communications Commission approved rules last year permitting expanded use of the 4.9 GHz spectrum, which the federal government dedicated to public safety uses in 2003. The current FCC said the spectrum is underused, stating only 3.5 percent of potential licensees have taken advantage of the opportunity.

Under new rules, states are allowed to lease this spectrum to third parties to boost wireless broadband, improve critical infrastructure monitoring and facilitate public safety. The FCC gave states flexibility to decide how to allocate the spectrum.

During a meeting of a task force set up to study the issue and make policy recommendations, Rep. Daryl Deshotel, R-Marksville, said last week the spectrum likely would not be used to serve consumers but could be used by businesses to communicate between multiple locations.

“It’s not the solution, but it’s part of the solution,” he said.Sen. Jay Morris, R-West Monroe, said state officials would need to ensure different users don’t interfere with each other. Legislators created a new office in the executive branch last year to oversee the state’s efforts to expand internet access, though the office is not yet funded.

Robert Moore with the Ouachita Parish Fire Department said the spectrum is necessary for his department because they cannot afford to lay down fiber.

“We ask for it not to happen, period,” he said, referring to leasing the spectrum to third parties. “Leave it for public safety as it should be.”

The FCC said existing licensees will be protected from interference, but some public safety leaders are unsure whether that promise will hold true once the change is implemented, said Travis Johnson with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP).

While the GOHSEP doesn’t have an official stance on the subject, Johnson said he thought a balance could be struck between public and private uses.

“I think there are ways to do this, but if it’s not structured carefully, I think public safety could get damaged by not having access to this spectrum,” Johnson said.

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