While the notion of a public-private partnership to build a wireless broadband network for public safety in the 700 MHz band remains a popular topic of discussion, recent filings with the FCC indicate there is little consensus regarding the way to implement such an arrangement.

Reply comments with the FCC regarding the 700 MHz auction—scheduled to begin by late January, based on current law—were due to the agency earlier this week, with the focus of public-safety-related comments being the Frontline Wireless proposal to create a public-private partnership on 22 MHz of spectrum.

Under the Frontline plan, the winner of the 10 MHz “E Block” license would be given an opportunity to negotiate a deal with a nationwide public-safety licensee—the holder of 12 MHz of spectrum—to build a nationwide broadband network on the combined spectrum. Frontline’s proposal that E Block bidders be limited to companies willing to pursue a wholesale-only business model and agree to operate according to “open access” guidelines was a subject of particularly heated debate.

“The conditions proposed by Frontline would practically guarantee the failure of such a partnership,” Verizon Wireless stated in its reply comments. “Under the Frontline proposal, public safety will effectively be barred from partnering with any existing wireless carrier—the very entities that are the most capable of assisting public safety in the construction and operation of a nationwide broadband network.”

In its comments, wireless industry trade association CTIA opposed the notion of buildout requirements and echoed the Verizon Wireless sentiment regarding open-access requirements.

“The government should refrain from imposing a single business plan – novel and untested – on the 700 MHz spectrum,” the CTIA filing states. “If a new entrant wins spectrum at auction, as was the case with SpectrumCo in the Advanced Wireless Services auction, that is fine. Predetermining what type of company should win, however, is a step backwards for the commission’s spectrum-assignment process.”

In its filing, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) did not take a position regarding open-access requirements but noted that existing carriers likely would not bid on the E Block spectrum if the FCC established such auction rules for the frequencies.

“An open-access requirement would also discourage the major carriers from participating in the E block auction, meaning that the auction winner would almost certainly have no existing national network,” the APCO filing states. “While starting from scratch has its benefits, an existing carrier would have the advantage of being able to utilize its existing infrastructure (e.g. transmitter sites) to build more quickly a national public-safety broadband network.”

Regardless which approach taken by the FCC, public safety needs to be protected from various risks associated with an E Block partner, according to the APCO filing. If the winning E Block bidder is an existing provider, the rules should ensure that the provider builds a public-safety-grade network instead of just letting consumers access its existing commercial network.

If the E Block winner is a startup company, APCO said it wants provisions to protect public safety against the new company’s business failure in the future. One of these provisions would include a review of the E Block winner’s business plan prior to the FCC granting a license—a concept also endorsed by Cyren Call Communications, which first proposed the public-private partnership notion more than a year ago.

“To not have this work would be catastrophic to public safety,” Cyren Call spokesman Tim O’Regan said during an interview with MRT. “If [the auction rules are] set in such a way that the nationwide carriers are unlikely to participate, there needs to be an additional step here that shows the financial thoughtfulness and viability of whoever the winner is of the E Block licensee … We owe it to public safety.”

Other comments focused on the relationship between the E Block winner and the public-safety licensee after the auction.

In its filing, Frontline has called for the E Block licensee to be subject to binding arbitration—perhaps with the FCC acting as the arbitrator—regarding disputes with the national public-safety licensee prior to a license being granted. If public safety does not like the results in arbitration, Frontline believes the national public-safety licensee should have 180 days to reach an agreement to build out the spectrum with another carrier or relinquish its spectrum rights to local and regional licensees.

“This may seem like tough medicine,” the Frontline filing states, noting that it believes the common ground between licensees is so great that such contingencies will not be needed. “But, if agreement cannot be reached after all the pro-public safety steps described above have been taken, including commission arbitration, the commission must step in to assure that public safety’s needs are met and valuable spectrum does not lie fallow.”

Verizon Wireless said it believes the FCC can establish rules that would protect public safety’s interests early in a public-private arrangement but that public safety’s leverage would erode as the viability of the network becomes dependent upon the E Block licensee’s ability to compete in the marketplace.

“Even if an agreement provided for financial penalties for non-performance or public safety were to obtain a money judgment against the licensee, such sanctions would undermine the operation and development of Public Safety’s own network,” the Verizon Wireless filing states. “Such an arrangement falls short of the long-term stability public safety requires.

“Should the licensee’s business plan fail, public safety could not prevent partial or total termination of service or control assignment of the license and the specification of new terms of service through the bankruptcy process … Whether or not exit regulation exists, a business that cannot meet its obligations in due course will, at some point, cease to provide service because it can no longer maintain the assets required to do so.”

Noting that the NextWave precedent makes it difficult for the FCC to reclaim spectrum licenses, Verizon Wireless advocates that the FCC pursue policies that will let public safety conduct an RFP process to secure “one or more parties that can assist it in constructing a broadband network.”