During last week’s hearing regarding the FCC’s national broadband plan before a House subcommittee, the conversation predictably centered on a few key issues, including an idea to reclaim more TV broadcast spectrum, reforming the universal service fund and the proposed public-safety wireless broadband network.

When one member of Congress asked FCC commissioners whether they agreed with the broadband plan’s recommendation to auction the D Block to commercial operators rather than have it reallocated to first responders, all agreed. By itself, this was significant, because it was the first public indication that FCC commissioners simply do not believe first responders need the D Block spectrum, as opposed to being obligated to auction the spectrum under existing law.

Privately, public-safety officials said this sentiment had come from the FCC before. But the real stunner for public safety came when Commissioner Robert McDowell expanded upon his response to the question:

“Keep in mind that Congress, in 1997 — well before 2001, Sept. 11 — set aside 24 MHz of the 700 MHz block,” he said. “That is sitting there. That is wonderful spectrum that should be used for something other than narrowband voice.”

That thud you just heard was the sound of elected officials, public-safety communications directors and frequency coordinators hitting the floor after feinting in incredulity over the notion that the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars spent nationwide on 700 MHz narrowband voice systems represents spectrum that is described as “sitting there.” And the idea that at least one of five commissioners believes the narrowband spectrum upon which these systems are built should be put to other uses has to be unnerving to all involved in these deployments.

As McDowell accurately stated, Congress allocated 24 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum to public safety in 1997. Of this, 12 MHz is currently allocated for narrowband, 2 MHz is used for guard bands, and 10 MHz is earmarked for broadband — airwaves licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust for the aforementioned public-safety broadband network.

In some areas of the country, public-safety agencies were able to use the 700 MHz narrowband allocation quickly, creating systems — a large percentage of which are P25 networks—that have helped alleviate some of the strain on 800 MHz spectrum in urban areas.

Admittedly, the public-safety 700 MHz narrowband spectrum has not been utilized fully to date, but there are legitimate reasons for that. First, in many parts of the country, the spectrum has only been available since June — when the digital-television transition was completed, meaning TV broadcasters had cleared the airwaves. Second, the down economy resulted in some projects being put on hold, because funding is simply impossible to secure right now.

But plans to deploy 700 MHz narrowband systems remain, with several public-safety entities hoping to build 700 MHz systems by 2013, so they will not have to spend money narrowbanding their legacy UHF or VHF systems. For these entities, McDowell’s statement last week has to be disconcerting.
On the surface, the statement from McDowell — one of two current FCC commissioners who were part of the commission when the 700 MHz band plan was revamped in 2007 — seems to indicate that there are better uses than narrowband for this 700 MHz spectrum. Given the topic of the day, that preferred use probably would be broadband, although McDowell did not state that.

Exactly what did McDowell mean? Does he want to reallocate the 700 MHz narrowband spectrum to broadband? If so, what would be the timetable and how would the transition be executed? Or, was this simply an observation that the spectrum could have been put to better use, but there are no intentions to undo what already is in place?

It’s impossible to say, at the moment. To be fair, it should be noted that McDowell’s response on the matter was just a quick sound bite out of a lengthy hearing, and this particular response was given under time pressure, as the questioner was conducting a “buzz round” of inquiries before his five minutes elapsed.

Given this, I’ve spent the last week trying to get clarification from McDowell’s office on the matter before writing this column. Numerous calls and e-mails to his staff yielded a very nice e-mail from McDowell himself — a tremendous gesture, given how busy things are at the FCC right now — that detailed the history of the 700 MHz allocation but did not address the aforementioned questions about possible reallocation of the narrowband spectrum. Yesterday, I was informed that McDowell was traveling this week and would not be able to address my questions.

In talking with several public-safety officials during the past week, none — even those wanting additional broadband spectrum — expressed support for reallocating the 700 MHz narrowband spectrum. Several noted that they had heard this idea come from McDowell’s office before and had not been able to convince the commissioner or his staff that it was not a realistic option. Fortunately, a couple said they believe McDowell is the only commissioner considering such an option.

If McDowell is contemplating a long-term transition of the 700 MHz narrowband spectrum to broadband, he should be applauded — when broadband voice meets public-safety standards, having such a transition plan in place promises to be valuable.

Meanwhile, it is important that McDowell and the FCC clarify the agency’s position regarding the 700 MHz narrowband spectrum. Broadband offers a great deal promise to first responders, but narrowband voice remains the lifeblood of public-safety communications today. With 800 MHz spectrum in the middle of rebanding and VHF/UHF systems about to be narrowbanded without federal funding, public-safety entities should not have to worry whether their considerable investments in 700 MHz narrowband systems are in jeopardy.

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