Two key national public-safety communications organizations recently reiterated their support for a nationwide public-safety network built through a public-private partnership with the winner of the 700 MHz “E Block” auction and detailed the characteristics they want included in the arrangement.

Written by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) and endorsed by the Association for Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the letter to the FCC and Congress includes many aspects of the Frontline Wireless proposal being considered by the commission—the use of commercial and public-safety spectrum for the network, a buildout plan to cover more than 99% of the continental U.S. population in 10 years and the need for a public-private partnership.

“Because public safety does not have access to funds even to build, much less to operate, maintain or refresh such a network, network deployment must be funded pursuant to a public safety-commercial partnership between the NPSL [national public-safety licensee] and the E Block auction winner as codified in the FCC rules and in the Network Sharing Agreement (NSA) to be negotiated between the NPSL and the E Block auction winner,” the NPSTC letter states.

Two key differences between the NPSTC position and the Frontline Wireless proposal is that the public-safety organization does not believe open-access requirements should be placed on the E Block licensees. While the NPSTC cites the “absence of a commonly agreed upon definition of what open access means,” many in the public-safety community have expressed fear that such a requirement would limit E Block bidding to startup companies.

Perhaps the most significant difference in the NPSTC letter revolves around how the FCC should proceed if the national public-safety licensee and the E Block auction winner are unable to negotiate a public-private arrangement, even after the FCC has served as the arbiter of disputes.

Under the Frontline Wireless proposal, the E Block winner would have to accept the FCC ruling, as would the public-safety licensee—unless the public-safety licensee was able to strike a deal with another commercial entity to build the nationwide network using just the public-safety spectrum earmarked for broadband. In that scenario, the E Block winner would be allowed to build a network using only its commercial spectrum.

But the NPSTC letter expresses public safety’s belief that the E Block winner should not be allowed to keep the E Block spectrum unless a deal is reached with the public-safety entity.

“The whole reason Frontline has put this proposal on the table—they claim—is that they want to build a public-safety network. In order for that to happen, public safety has to have a reasonable amount of say in how that’s going to work,” NPSTC spokesman Harlin McEwen said during an interview with MRT. “If we’re not comfortable with it, they’re basically going to build another commercial network that we don’t agree to, and we’ll be right back where we are now—that is, that the commercial networks that exist today don’t meet our needs.

“The bottom line is simply that the restriction on the 10 MHz is that they come up with an agreement with [public safety]. For them to get the spectrum if they can’t get an agreement with us is mind-boggling to us.”

NPSTC’s position is that, if negotiations and FCC arbitration do not yield an agreement that satisfies the public-safety licensee, the E Block spectrum should be reauctioned. Critics of the notion have argued that such an approach effectively gives the public-safety licensee veto power over an FCC auction, but McEwen said such measures are necessary to protect the interests of public safety.

“If the FCC came back to us with unreasonable, unacceptable terms … at that last stage—if we don’t agree that it’s going to meet our needs—why should the highest bidder walk away with that spectrum?” McEwen said. “Because, at the end of the day, we don’t get anything; we’re right back where we started.

“We take the position that this is very different, very special, and we do need that ultimate veto power.”

McEwen emphasized his belief that E Block bidders should not be concerned that the national public-safety licensee would refuse to reach an agreement simply to force a reauction in the hopes that another specific bidder would win.

“The fact is, [that] is not our intention, nor would it be our intention,” McEwen said.

Shortly after the NPSTC letter was released, APCO expressed its support for the positions outlined.

"This statement reiterates our support for using the FCC's auction mechanism as a means to promote a viable public-private partnership to achieve a nationwide public-safety broadband network," APCO President Wanda McCarley said.

Frontline Wireless also issued a statement regarding the NPSTC letter, welcoming public safety support for the notion of a public-private partnership built on the E Block spectrum and 700 MHz airwaves earmarked for public safety. The Frontline Wireless statement did not address any of the differences between the positions taken by NPSTC and Frontline Wireless.