FCC commissioners today voted to approve new draft rules for the reauction of the 10 MHz D Block in the 700 MHz that would determine the commercial partner—or partners—that would build a wireless broadband network on the spectrum for public-safety use.

Although there were no votes in opposition to the draft rules, all commissioners expressed reservations about various aspects of the proposal. However, in an attempt to approve final auction rules by the end of the year, the matter was approved.

“Putting forth an admittedly imperfect item is better than doing nothing,” Commissioner Robert McDowell said.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin echoed this sentiment.

“The time is beyond trying to identify issues,” Martin said. “Rather, it’s time to propose what we think the best answers are.”

A reauction of the D Block is needed because no qualifying bids were received when the spectrum was auctioned earlier this year, as potential bidders cited a lack of detail in the rules among myriad problems that made it impossible for them to value the airwaves and justify a nationwide buildout. To this end, the draft rules include significantly more specificity than the previous auction rules, including a maximum base rate of $48.50 per month per public-safety user.

Commissioner Michael Copps applauded the new level of detail in the draft rules but said they were incomplete, noting that the proposed rules do not specify the level of service the commercial operator would have to provide for the base rate.

“A network that is too expensive for first responders to use is little better than no network at all,” he said.

Regardless of the rules, most commissioners acknowledged that wireless operators will be hard-pressed to finance the billions of dollars needed to build a fourth-generation wireless network in a financial market that recently has been the focus of national attention. With this in mind, Copps said he believes it is important for the FCC to be as specific as possible in its rules, so commercial bidders can justify the project to potential investors.

“Finding money in the hallowed canyons of Wall Street—or anywhere else—to get this network built makes Indiana Jones’ searchings look like child’s play,” he said. “Lack of certainty on top of a lack of funding will not a public-safety network make.”

As previously disclosed, draft rules call for the D Block would be auctioned on a combined basis, with bidders being given three options to participate—on a nationwide basis, on a regional basis using LTE technology or on a regional basis using WiMAX technology. Assuming the aggregate reserve price of $750 million is met, the auction generating the greatest amount of coverage will be declared the winner.

Under the rules, as few as 11 of the 58 regions would have to be covered for the FCC to declare the auction a success and issue regional licenses, Copps said.

The FCC plans to release the text of the draft rules quickly, possibly as early as today. Agency officials hope the item can be published in the Federal Register next week, after which a 40-day comment cycle will commence, so that final auction rules can be approved before the end of the year.

Noting that it has been seven years since the 9/11 attacks highlighted the need for an interoperable public-safety network, Copps said he is understands the desire to reauction the D Block as quickly as possible. However, Copps said the desire to move quickly should not overshadow public safety’s needs.

“This is urgent business,” he said. “But I also believe that the only goal more pressing than doing this quickly is doing it right.”