Debate on the merits of a public/private partnership building a nationwide broadband network will escalate after the FCC unanimously approved a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, calling for such a system to be built using public-safety spectrum in the 700 MHz band.

Under the FCC proposal, 12 MHz of spectrum currently allocated for public-safety wideband use would be earmarked for the broadband system. The spectrum would be licensed to a national public-safety broadband licensee, which would lease the airwaves to operators to build a public-safety network that also could offer commercial services when public safety is not using the spectrum. The item also would let the public-safety licensee operate on the 12 MHz of public-safety narrowband spectrum on a secondary basis.

Structurally, the FCC proposal is similar to the much-discussed plan submitted by Cyren Call Communications, but the spectrum to be utilized is different. While the FCC plan would use the 700 MHz spectrum already allocated to public safety, Cyren Call — led by Nextel Communications co-founder Morgan O'Brien — advocates using 30 MHz of spectrum in the upper portion of the 700 MHz band that is scheduled to be auctioned to commercial operators early in 2008.

Because of the auction mandate, the FCC lacked the authority to consider the Cyren Call proposal — a fact noted in the FCC's November dismissal, without prejudice, of Cyren Call's rulemaking petition. While Congress contemplates legislation that could let Cyren Call's proposal become reality, the FCC NPRM should let commenters debate the merits and details of the public/private partnership necessary to make either plan work.

“I think it's important to recognize that this isn't a substitute for many of the other proposals out there … but we need to do all we can to address those issues in a creative way,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said. “This is an opportunity for us to do so.”

Detailing the public/private relationship promises to be a tricky endeavor in a public-safety environment where “the margin for error is exceedingly and uniquely low,” Commissioner Michael Copps said.

“We have to be especially confident that there are no unintended consequences falling from any actions we approve,” he said. “At the same time, given the long-standing need for reform in this area, we can't afford to ignore innovative ideas that could potentially revolutionize existing public-safety spectrum management.”

Indeed, the FCC and Cyren Call proposals offer models that differ significantly from the traditional public-safety model of taxpayer-funded entities building private communications networks, such as land mobile radio systems.

In the public/private partnership arrangement, commercial operators would lease spectrum from a public-safety licensee and build a public-safety-grade broadband network that first responder agencies could access with highest priority in cases of emergency. In addition to receiving service fees from public-safety entities, the operator would be able to offer commercial broadband services on spectrum not used by public safety.

Public-safety entities overwhelmingly expressed support for the Cyren Call proposal during a recently completed FCC public-comment period that drew more than 1300 submittals, but that proceeding involved a public/private partnership that would utilize spectrum first responders would not otherwise influence. Many sources believe it may be more difficult for public safety to reach such a consensus on the previously allocated frequencies that have been the focus of initiatives started years ago.

However, Bruce Cox, Cyren Call's vice president for government relations, said he believes more than 12 MHz of spectrum is needed to make a public/private partnership economically viable.

“The commission's talking about having commercial users on those 12 MHz [already allocated to public safety], and I'm not sure how public safety will embrace that,” he said. “To be able to build that network across the nation, we think you need a bigger pipe to attract the commercial investment to build [a broadband network] and to keep it evergreen.”

Wanda McCarley, president of APCO, said APCO will seek additional spectrum in the 700 MHz band.

“We want to stress that this [FCC proposal] doesn't alleviate the need for additional spectrum for broadband for public safety,” McCarley said. “We will continue to push for the [additional] 30 MHz of spectrum.”

And Cyren Call continues to make its case on Capitol Hill, Cox said. The company has been meeting with public-safety officials to draft legislation that could be sponsored as early as February, when the new Democratic-majority Congress may conduct hearings this spring on various broadband proposals for public safety.

In addition, Cyren Call submitted a comment to the FCC noting that the public-safety broadband trust it proposes — similar to the FCC's national public-safety licensee — would have 25 seats, with representatives from the national public-safety organizations comprising the majority. The company also outlined a technology-review schedule that would enable network deployments when the 700 MHz band becomes available in February 2009.

“Think of [technological and policy issues] as being on parallel tracks,” Cox said. “If you wait until the legislation passes and the regulatory proceedings are done, you're just going to add years to the process. We don't think we have the luxury of time in getting this network up and running.”