Earlier this year, the FCC tried to auction the 10 MHz D Block adjacent to public safety’s broadband spectrum swath. The auction failed to attract a qualifying bidder, as potential commercial partners claimed the nationwide license and public-safety-friendly obligations made the deal untenable financially.

Next week, the FCC will unveil its proposed new rules for the D Block. Based on the information coming out of the agency thus far, only the goal that a public-private partnership would build a wireless broadband network to be used by public safety remains the same. Here are some of the other changes in the draft being circulated among commissioners:

  • Coverage: While a nationwide license will be auctioned, no one expects a bidder. Instead, most hope seems to rest with the two technology-driven auctions—one for LTE and one for WiMAX—that will be offered with a license in each NPSPAC region. To be deemed a success, only 50% of the U.S. population needs to covered, compared to the 99.3% proposed in the previous D Block auction.
  • More coverage: Even within the NPSPAC regions, the coverage requirements are lessened. Public Safety and Homeland Security bureau Chief Derek Poarch this week testified before Congress that the current draft proposal calls for 98% coverage in densely populated areas and 90% in rural areas.
  • Buildout timetable: Instead of the 10-year timetable called for in the previous auction, the buildout period has been extended to 15 years. This should help bidders secure financing, but one has to wonder whether WiMAX or LTE will even be relevant by 2025. Obviously interim benchmarks and other language we don’t know about in the rules will be critical here.
  • Hardening of sites: Poarch said the proposal would require a commercial partner to harden no more than 35% of tower sites designated by public safety as “critical” with 48 hours of backup generator power and 8 hours of backup battery power.
  • Priority: Public safety will not have priority across all 100% of the network capacity as previously proposed.
  • Reserve price: Apparently, it will be lowered from $1.3 billion to $750 million. Everybody agreed that a lowering was necessary, but some question whether even this is enough to make a difference.
  • Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST): Public-safety licensee will be required to conduct open meetings and cannot seek more than $5 million in annual spectrum-lease fees.

We’ll learn more after the FCC’s meeting on Thursday, but it appears the commission is doing everything possible to make the D Block economically feasible to a commercial operator. It certainly should be more attractive to commercial interests, but I have doubts whether public safety is going to want any part of it, particularly if the network only covers the top 40 metropolitan—the very markets were localities might have the financial resources to be able to build their own private networks, if the spectrum was available .

Wireless industry consultant Andrew Seybold said he is sure public-safety agencies will not want to subscribe to such a network, particularly if WiMAX becomes the technology of choice, causing public safety to miss out on the economies of scale that the LTE market seems to promise.

“This is a disaster waiting to happen for public safety,” Seybold said. “If I were the PSST, I would give the FCC back my license, because it’s not good for public safety … Public safety loses.”

Personally, I’ll wait to see what the rules have to say next week. In the meantime, FCC commissioners should ask themselves the following question: If we have a commercial entity build a network in the name of public safety and no public safety groups want to use it, have we done anything to advance first-responder interoperability?

E-mail me at donald.jackson@penton.com.