An additional layer of comments regarding rulemaking for the 700 MHz D Block will make it difficult for the FCC to auction the spectrum this year as proposed, but the commission should be able to establish the auction rules before the expected transition accompanying a new presidential administration occurs.

After the D Block—10 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum adjacent to public safety’s broadband frequencies in the band, the winner of which is expected to be the commercial partner in public-private partnership for a nationwide broadband network—failed to attract a bidder earlier this year, the FCC is considering new rules for the spectrum. The comment period on a vague FCC rulemaking on the matter was completed earlier this month.

Instead of using this record to establish new rules for the D Block, the FCC will release a draft of its proposal, which will be subject to 45 days of input—30 days for comments and 15 days for reply comments. Following this process, the FCC would release its rules, which would be subject to the same comment and reply periods.

“We remain committed to moving forward on this important issue and believe that it is technically feasible to try to commence an auction by year's end if we have everything in place in the very near future,” FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said. “I am hoping that we will present a draft notice of proposed rulemaking to commissioners sometime in September.”

But most Beltway sources believe the only way a D Block auction can begin this year is if the FCC unveils its draft rules in August—a meeting has been tentatively scheduled for Aug. 22. In fact, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has indicated that he has questions whether there will be a D Block auction this year, although he told Congress in the spring that he expected to conduct an auction in November.

Such questions would seem to be warranted, because unveiling draft rules in September would leave less than 120 days in the year to conduct the auction. With two comment periods using 90 of those days, that would leave less than 30 days combined for items such as two Federal Register publications, auction applications and downpayment collections.

Harlin McEwen, chairman and CEO of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST)—the national licensee for public safety’s 10 MHz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum—said he has doubted the FCC’s ability to conduct the D Block reauction in 2008 for some time.

“I did not believe it would be possible to have the auction until after the first of the year—hopefully, not too long after the first of the year, in January,” McEwen said. “The rules are the important part that needs to get done.”

If the FCC fails to approve D Block rules this year, the task could fall to a new FCC—a scenario that McEwen said he would like to avoid, because of the potential delay it likely would create in the process. McEwen said he’s confident the FCC will try to get the rules done this year, even if the auction is not conducted until 2009.

“I think [Martin] clearly wants to get this done while he’s still chairman,” McEwen said.

Indeed, while Kenny acknowledged that the conducting an auction this year requires an “ambitious timetable” and the possibility exists that the auction would not happen this year, he did indicate that the commission wants to approve D Block rules in 2008.

“The most important thing is to move forward,” Kenny said during an interview with MRT. “You don’t want to have to start the [D Block rulemaking] process over.”