A House subcommittee today expressed frustration that the 700 MHz auction failed to produce a winning D Block bidder that would partner with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) to build a nationwide broadband network for public safety, but there was little consensus regarding what the next step should be.

During a 4½-hour hearing, virtually every member of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet stated that developing a nationwide broadband network that would enable interoperable public-safety communications is a high priority.

“We have to get this right,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). “We’re going to be held accountable if we don’t, and we should be.”

While the subcommittee agreed on the importance of the matter, the ideas to make such a network a reality varied significantly throughout the subcommittee. Some believed the public-private partnership framework the FCC used in the auction be maintained, with some changes that would be designed to attract more bidders, including a lower reserve price and greater clarity regarding the network buildout obligation and business model for the commercial operator.

All five FCC commissioners testified that they favor this approach, with Commissioner Michael Copps describing a public-private partnership as the “last best hope” for public safety to get such a network without significant federal appropriation. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said the earliest date for such a reauction would be during the fourth quarter of this year.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) both expressed interest in the notion of auctioning the D Block without any public-safety obligations and taking the proceeds from that auction to fund a nationwide public-safety network. Martin noted that the FCC would welcome this or other federally funded alternatives, but that would be the decision of Congress, not the FCC.

“The simple reality is that public-safety does not have the resources to fund a nationwide network,” Martin said. “Absent funding legislation, a public-private [arrangement] really is the only way.”

PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen said he does not believe 10 MHz of spectrum will be enough for public safety during a large-scale event and expressed doubt that a D Block auction would generate enough revenue to cover the cost of a nationwide buildout of a broadband wireless network. Morgan O’Brien, chairman of PSST advisor Cyren Call, echoed this sentiment.

“It would be a significant shortfall to build the system, much less operate it,” O’Brien said.

Confusing the issue was a sizeable disagreement on the amount of money required to build a nationwide, public-safety-grade broadband network. While Martin and some other FCC commissioners indicated that it would only cost $5-7 billion to deploy such a network, others giving testimony said the cost likely would be $15-$20 billion.

Steve Zipperstein, vice president and general counsel for Verizon Wireless, said the buildout of a nationwide network would be “orders of magnitude higher” than the figures quoted by Martin. In fact, given public safety’s coverage and network-reliability expectations, Zipperstein said he does not believe any single carrier could justify the cost of the network buildout.

“The economic imbalance is such that, even if we tinker around the edges [of the current D Block proposal], I don’t think you will have a successful bidder,” Zipperstein said.

Coleman Bazelon, principal for the Brattle Group, said the fact that public-safety communications would have priority during times of emergencies would limit the ability of a commercial operator to market the network, noting that it effectively would come with the advertising slogan: “Guaranteed not to work when you need it most.”

With this in mind, O’Brien said the PSST is considering a consortium approach to providing public safety with needed commercial partners, which would prevent any single carrier from having to bear the cost of the nationwide network alone.

Charles Dowd, deputy chief of the New York City police department’s communication division, expressed support for an interoperable regional approach to the public-safety network that could better serve the needs of different geographical locales. Robert Irving, general counsel for Leap Wireless, said regional D Block licenses would be more attractive to mid-sized and regional commercial wireless carriers.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said her concern regarding regional systems would be that they may not interoperate well and that some areas of the country would be better served than others.

Robert Duncan, senior vice president of government services for Rivada Networks, said his company’s model of reselling commercial carriers’ services to public safety is the most efficient way to address interoperability between first responders. Duncan said Rivada could solve the problem at a cost of $500 million.

But subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) questioned the reliability and coverage that commercial networks would provide, citing a newspaper article detailing the fact that cellular calls typically get dropped when customers enter the Tip O’Neill tunnel in Boston.

“If you can’t solve something simple like this, then really I’m dubious,” Markey said of the notion that commercial carriers’ networks should be entrusted with public-safety communications.

Harman agreed, noting that commercial wireless carriers failed to offer any solutions to public-safety interoperability in the three years following 9/11.

“My view is that we give the D Block one more shot,” Harman said.