Wireless carriers and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) this week have called for a commercial auction of the 700 MHz D Block, less than a month after eight public-safety organizations asked Congress to reallocate the spectrum for first-responder uses.

Last year, the 10 MHz D Block swath was the subject of a public/private partnership FCC proposal that failed to attract a qualifying bidder last year. In late May, a group of eight public-safety organizations — many of which had disagreed on 700 MHz broadband strategy in the past — reached consensus that Congress should reallocate the spectrum to public safety, so the frequencies could be paired with the 10 MHz of public-safety broadband spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) that could be used to pursue a nationwide network for first responders.

NENA was not one of the participating organizations endorsing that proposal. Instead, NENA has floated a proposal — not yet filed with the FCC — that would call for a commercial auction of both the D Block and the spectrum currently held by the PSST.

A key aspect of the NENA proposal would be to ensure that public safety has short-term funding—for instance, half of the auction proceeds — and a long-term, sustainable funding mechanism, said NENA CEO Brian Fontes. In addition, it is important that any obligations that commercial bidders have to public safety be clearly detailed before such an auction, because uncertainty undermined the last D Block auction, he said.

“What this option is designed to do is increase the debate and discussion regarding how we create a nationwide wireless broadband network that public safety can benefit from, whether it’s public safety’s own network or whether it’s a network built by others that public safety has access to on favorable terms and conditions,” Fontes said. “It is designed only to create debate, and if it’s doing that already, fantastic.”

Others in the public-safety community were far less enthused. Charles Dowd — deputy chief for the New York Police Department and an outspoken critic of last year’s D Block proposal from the FCC — said he believes the NENA proposal is “frankly, worse than the original solution.”

“What they’re suggesting has absolutely no merit,” Dowd said.
Dowd has advocated that the D Block be allocated to public safety, something commercial wireless behemoths AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless — the two largest holders of commercial spectrum in the 700 MHz band — have said they would support. If the D Block is auctioned to commercial operators, many Beltway sources believe the new FCC with a Democratic majority would establish spectrum caps that would prohibit AT&T or Verizon from participating.

Meanwhile, a group of four competitive wireless carriers — T-Mobile USA, MetroPCS Communciations, Leap Wireless International and the Rural Telecommunications Group — have asked the FCC to auction the D Block to commercial operators with no obligations to public safety. However, the group is asking Congress to dedicate the auction proceeds — estimated to be between $2 billion to $9 billion — to public safety to help address its broadband-communications issues.

“I definitely think there is a need there [for public safety], but I’m not sure that giving them more spectrum at 700 MHz is going to solve that,” said Kathleen Ham, T-Mobile’s vice president of federal regulatory affairs. “I think they really do need funding and better technology, and we’re very supportive of that.”

PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen declined to answer questions about the NENA or the commercial carriers’ proposal during an interview, but the PSST did release a statement regarding the proposals.

“Proposals that would allocate the D Block to primarily commercial purposes would not be beneficial to public safety,” according to the PSST statement. “The current allocation of 10 MHz of broadband spectrum to public safety is not sufficient alone to serve the needs of public safety in the major urban areas or in times of major events and disasters.”