Almost a year after the 700 MHz D Block was supposed to be auctioned to create a shared wireless broadband network for public safety, the future of the spectrum apparently will remain in limbo until a new FCC is constituted as part of president-elect Barack Obama's administration.

FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said the agency still hopes to establish rules for another auction of the D Block — the 10 MHz of commercial spectrum that would be paired with 10 MHz of public-safety broadband spectrum to form the spectral foundation of a public/private shared network. However, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was not optimistic about the possibility when acknowledging that the D Block item would not be on the agenda for the commission's December meeting.

“At this point, I'm not sure there is any consensus or willingness among the other commissioners to move forward on [D Block rules],” Martin said during the press conference, according to a transcript provided by the FCC. “I think that it is important for us to do it, but I haven't gotten a sense from any of the commission offices that they are yet willing to move forward.

“If I do, I would certainly be anxious for us to do it as soon as we could — in January, if there was a consensus or a majority ready to move forward. But, I haven't gotten that sense from the commissioners.”

If the FCC does not approve new rules for the D Block in January, there could be a substantial delay in addressing the matter, as the FCC experiences a transition period in conjunction with a new presidential administration.

Before the FCC's January meeting, Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate will leave the commission, unless unexpected last-minute actions are taken to extend her expiring term. After the January meeting, Martin also is expected to leave the FCC after being replaced as chairman following Obama's inauguration.

As is often the case in the aftermath of a presidential election, the Beltway rumor mill is working overtime regarding the identity of the next FCC chairman. Certainly current Democrat Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are in the discussion, but it also is possible that they could be passed over for a newcomer or be offered other posts outside the FCC by the Obama administration.

Making such a delay more likely is that there appears to be little consensus within the commercial wireless or public-safety communities, much less a sense of agreement between the two groups.

During the comment period that closed last month on the D Block proposal, public-safety representatives expressed concern about relaxed network requirements in the FCC's proposed rules that were approved in September, and several big cities — New York, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, to name a few — claimed they would not subscribe to the network under the proposed model.

Those big-city representatives have advocated that the FCC license public safety's 10 MHz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum — as well as the adjacent 10 MHz D Block frequencies, with the approval of Congress — directly to local agencies, which could pursue buildout plans that best fit their needs and resources.

Charles Dowd, deputy chief for the New York City Police Department, said New York City “didn't think [the FCC's public/private proposal] was a sound idea to begin with” and welcomed the delay. While New York City would like to pursue use of the 700 MHz spectrum on its own, Dowd said the city would adhere to any technical guidelines the FCC establishes to ensure interoperability.

Supporting the big-city proposal are the two largest U.S. wireless carriers, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility, although both acknowledge that the FCC would be on shaky legal ground if it dedicated the D Block spectrum to public safety without Congress passing a law ordering the commission to do so.

Of course, Verizon and AT&T already own the bulk of 700 MHz spectrum auctioned last year. Smaller players see a D Block auction as their last chance to operate in the band and want a chance to bid on the airwaves. However, most of these carriers have indicated that the current economic downturn would preclude them from bidding, because securing billions of dollars in the tight capital markets would be difficult if not impossible.

As a result, many close to the situation believe the fate of the D Block might not be decided until the middle of 2009. If an auction is conducted, most believe the earliest timetable would have bidding start in late 2009 or early 2010.

Given the lack of consensus on key issues, additional time may be needed to forge a workable plan for the D Block, said mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold. “I hate to delay first responders again, but I'd like them to take some time and do something better [than the current FCC proposal],” he said.

But a lengthy delay could have detrimental impact on two groups: the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — licensee of public safety's 10 MHz of spectrum — and public safety entities operating narrowband systems on these frequencies that need to be relocated.

With no revenue source, the PSST has been financed with a loan from its adviser, Cyren Call Communications — an arrangement that has led to significant criticism from Congress. PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen said the PSST board has approved a contract with Cyren Call for another year of financing, but the deal is contingent on getting FCC approval to ensure that the PSST would be allowed to raise money to repay the debt, McEwen said. As of press time, the FCC had not provided any guidance on the matter.

McEwen declined to speculate what the PSST would do if the Cyren Call financing deal is not approved by the FCC, noting that the PSST board would have to determine a new course of action. However, McEwen acknowledged the possibility that the PSST might have to “cut Cyren Call loose” if some sort of financing arrangement cannot be found.

Meanwhile, public-safety agencies wanting to operate narrowband systems at 700 MHz could be in limbo until the D Block matter is resolved. FCC proposals have called for the 47 agencies already operating narrowband networks at 700 MHz to be relocated to spectrum in the band, with the cost of the relocation being paid by the D Block winner. With no D Block winner, there is no funding source to pay for the relocation, which is needed to clear public safety's spectrum for broadband uses.

“This is absolutely horrific for public safety,” McEwen said. “For those 47 agencies, this is terrible — they've been waiting for more than a year and nothing's been decided. … They're stuck.”