That’s where the money is”
– Willie Sutton
The FCC is hoping to rework the D Block, in a plan to share a 10 MHz chunk of the 700 Mhz frequencies with consumers. This time around, the agency hopes to auction off the D Block to wireless carriers and use the proceeds to help pay for a public safety network – on a dedicated but adjoining slice of spectrum already set aside for first responders.
But the public service agencies want the frequencies all to themselvess – and require taxpayers to build the system and buy their radios. The FCC claims that would double the cost and make a nationwide broadband emergency network unattainable.
The FCC attempted to auction off the “D Block” to the wireless industry, in the 700 MHz auction back in 2008. The FCC required the winning bidder to build a sturdy commercial cellular network that would be shared with first responders in an emergency.
The idea was simple: a shared public safety/commercial system could lower costs and improve service.
Many public service agencies don’t see it that way.
The original requirements included universal service within the contiguous United States. But it proved too onerous in 2008. The FCC required a $1.5 Billion minimum bid. But the highest bidder was Qualcomm with a $472 million bid. The “D Block” was tabled. A blue ribbon panel was formed to study the issue.
But the FCC proposal, crafted from the study group’s recommendations, has run into fierce resistance from public safety leaders who want the spectrum for themselves.
“We have a brief technological window to get everybody on the same page from the beginning and build a 21st Century … broadband system,” says Rear Admiral James Barnett, head of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV.), Commerce Committee chairman, is introducing a bill that would hand over the 10 megahertz of “D Block” spectrum to public safety officials, adding to the 10MHz first responders already possess for dedicated LTE broadband. Police, fire and other public safety groups have argued they need that additional spectrum to meet data demands of the future.
The FCC says its proposal would fulfill a Congressional requirement to auction off the D Block and ensure public safety benefits from the latest wireless technology. It enables nation-wide broadband wireless. For everyone. First responders, too.
The existing public safety block, according to the FCC, provides plenty of capacity for day-to-day operations. And in an emergency, the FCC proposal would give public safety users priority access to the shared public/private D Block as well as LTE cellular services from AT&T and Verizon.
“If they auction this spectrum, we’ve lost it forever,” says Rob Davis, head of the San Jose Police Department and president of the Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association. “We need to control this network ourselves.”
Public safety officials have powerful allies in Congress, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Meanwhile, House Commerce Committee leaders are drafting legislation based on the FCC plan.
Lieberman and McCain’s First Responders Protection Act would require the FCC to pay for a $5.5B network and allocate another $5.5 billion in auction proceeds to cover recurring maintenance and operational costs. The Rockefeller bill would raise money from auctioning off broadcast licenses. The NAB praised a bill introduced Monday by Senators John Kerry and Olympia Snowe, that would require that the FCC and NTIA to measure spectrum use and occupancy rates.
The big wireless carriers have also joined the fray. T-Mobile USA and Sprint Nextel Corp., eager for more spectrum, support the FCC proposal. Verizon Wireless and AT&T, both with 700 MHz spectrum from 2008 auctions, want to see the D Block go to public safety. So does Motorola, which dominates the market for first responder communications equipment and handsets.
The FCC’s plan — supported by the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission — “will ensure the build-out of a network that is cutting edge, reliable, and cost-effective,” FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said. It would auction off the 10 MHz “D Block”, but allow public service agencies to use the commercial frequencies.
The FCC says it’s plan meets the needs of first responders. The FCC’s proposal would give public safety users instant priority access to at least three times more spectrum in a crisis. LTE can make far more efficient use of airwaves than public safety networks do today.
Proponents of the FCC plan might argue that nationwide satellite phone/terrestrial LTE service, would provide more universal service for first responders at less cost. How many terrestrial public service radio networks were working after Katrina? Very few. If towers weren’t blown down, they lost power. Satellite phones were the only practical way to keep in touch. New satphone platforms, like Terrestar and Skyterra, handle high speed data, and use inexpensive handsets.
But Chuck Dowd (pdf testimony), deputy chief in the communications division of the New York City Police Department, says commercial networks are just not reliable enough for first responders who deal with life-and-death matters. Richard Mirgon, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, adds that in a mass emergency, commercial networks are often already overwhelmed – making it impossible for first responders to even connect to them.
David Stephenson writes about Web 2.0 homeland security strategies. He says DHS thinks of the Internet as a place for brochureware rather than a central repository for real-time information.
First responders are on the wrong side of an asymmetric force multiplier. The dispute is now headed to Congress, with the focus on funding.
The FCC’s first responder radio plan puts the cost of building the public safety network at roughly $6.5 billion and the cost of operating and maintaining it at between $6 billion and $10 billion over 10 years – less than half the cost of a stand-alone network, the FCC says.
In the face of a ballooning federal deficit and state and local budget cuts, Rear Admiral James Barnett, head of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, insists the FCC plan offers the best way to come up with this funding.
But public safety officials are confident they can find the money to pay for a broadband network even without D Block auction proceeds. They would target additional Treasury funds generated by the FCC as it auctions more spectrum over the next 10 years.
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