In today's world, spectrum is the lifeblood of mobile wireless communications. Without spectrum, all the marketing, money and network infrastructure in the world are of little use in terms of transmitting information to an untethered user. However, with the appropriate spectral foundation, these same tangible assets can work as designed and have remarkable value, whether it is measured in revenue for a commercial operator or in lives and property saved by a public-safety agency.

Given this, it is little wonder that the desire for licensed spectrum typically is high. Almost two years ago, winning bidders paid $19 billion for 700 MHz airwaves auctioned by the FCC — and that figure would have been higher if a qualified bidder had emerged in the failed D Block auction.

Today, tight credit markets could dampen the revenue generated in a potential re-auction, but the need for more spectrum may be greater than ever. Commercial operators and public-safety organizations had sought spectrum in the past based on the predictions of users' desires to use data applications while on the go, but those predictions have become a reality today.

With this in mind, public-safety organizations have rallied around the idea of having the 700 MHz D Block reallocated for first-responder use. Combined with 10 MHz of spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), a reallocated D Block would give public safety a 20 MHz spectral foundation — ideal airwaves for LTE, public safety's broadband technology of choice — upon which to build a nationwide wireless broadband network for first reponders.

But public safety isn't alone in its desire to have more broadband spectrum, as the commercial wireless, healthcare, education and energy sectors also are seeking airwaves that will allow them to pursue their own worthy broadband agendas. It will be up to the FCC and Congress to determine which sectors' needs can be met, but the FCC's intention to find additional spectrum that can be cleared for broadband uses certainly is a priority under new Chairman Julius Genachowski.

"We need more bandwidth for broadband," said Ruth Milkman, chief of the commission's wireless telecommunications bureau, during an FCC meeting (see Spectrum continues to be a key focus of FCC broadband effort) that focused on updating the progress made in formulating the national broadband plan that must be submitted to Congress by Feb. 17.

Commercial needs

Driving the search for available spectrum is the burgeoning commercial mobile data market. Helped by user-friendly devices such as the Apple iPhone hitting the market, AT&T Mobility has seen a 5,000% increase in its mobile-data traffic, according to Scott Bergmann, assistant vice president for regulatory affairs for CTIA, the trade association for commercial wireless carriers.

According to a study conducted by the International Telecommunications Union, wireless carriers in the United States need an additional 800 MHz of spectrum below 3 GHz — airwaves that have the propagation characteristics necessary to support wide-area mobile networks — by 2015 to meet the demand for broadband services, Bergmann said.

"The growth is so explosive right now that it's a challenge to figure out what we're going to need in the future," Bergmann said. "We know from history that the process to identify spectrum, bring it to market and get it cleared can take anywhere from four to 13 years, depending on what's involved in the process. The key is getting started now."

One disappointment voiced by members of Congress in the aftermath of the 700 MHz auction was that it was dominated by the two largest U.S. wireless carriers, Verizon and AT&T. Making more spectrum available to carriers could help create a more competitive market, according to Blair Levin, who is heading the FCC's national broadband effort.

Mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold does not believe more competition is needed, noting that there are four nationwide carriers and a host of regional carriers, meaning that many markets can choose service from more than five providers. Seybold said he is not sure that even the CTIA estimate of 800 MHz will be enough for some people.

"I don't know who pulled this 800 MHz [estimate] out of the air, but we're never going to have enough spectrum, bottom line," Seybold said. "As long as people say that the wired and wireless Internet need to be the same, we can't do that wirelessly. It's physically impossible to handle that much traffic, regardless of how much wireless technology we have and how much spectrum we have."

Seybold does acknowledge that more spectrum is needed for existing commercial wireless carriers to meet ever-growing bandwidth demands. And that position appears to be gaining momentum within the FCC.

"We need to focus on spectrum, one of our country's most important assets," Genachowski said during last month's commission meeting. "The record does contain powerful evidence that the demand on our commercial mobile spectrum is on a course to outstrip the supply."

Potential airwaves

With this in mind, the FCC is seeking new spectrum opportunities. The agency is working with the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA), which oversees federal government usage of spectrum, to determine whether airwaves currently designated for government or military use could be cleared for other purposes. A similar effort a decade ago resulted in the clearing of 1.7-2.1 GHz spectrum that was auctioned to commercial carriers in 2006.

Meanwhile, the utilities sector is seeking 30 MHz of spectrum within the 1.8 GHz band currently held by the federal government that is "rather lightly used, so we feel comfortable we can coordinate around it," said Brett Kilbourne, director of regulatory services and associate counsel for the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC).

"What we're talking about with the FCC is getting them to support us in sharing the spectrum with federal users," Kilbourne said, noting that broadband capabilities could help utilities realize the full potential of the smart-grid vision. "We're not trying to reallocate the band, which would mean that the incumbents would have to be relocated."

Other opportunities being considered by the FCC include allowing terrestrial operators to use spectrum currently licensed for satellite services, Milkman said.

Perhaps the most-discussed airwaves are licensed to television broadcasters, which hold 6 MHz of contiguous spectrum for each channel to transmit free, over-the-air TV signals. With 80% of the U.S. population receiving TV signals via paid subscriptions to cable or satellite services, many have questioned whether the television broadcast spectrum is being utilized in the best manner. This is particularly true of the unused spectrum between active channels, known as "white spaces."

But television broadcasters relinquished channels 52 to 69 just last year to culminate a lengthy and expensive process associated with making the transition from analog television to digital television (DTV). Clearing this spectrum allowed the FCC to conduct the 700 MHz auction for commercial wireless carriers, but repeating the process is not something stations on lower channels want to do, said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)

"I don't want to sound flip, but we essentially gave at the office," Wharton said, noting that clearing lower channels would be a bigger challenge, because there are many more stations on that spectrum. "For us to now — six months later — be asked to return more spectrum to the government, there seems to be a fundamental question of fairness here. We support broadband deployment, but does it have to be at the expense of the millions of people who rely every day on local TV for news, information, emergency weather alerts and sporting events? We would hope not."

NAB long has been considered to be one of the strongest lobbying organizations in the nation's capital, so most analysts believe that convincing Capitol Hill to pry spectrum from television broadcasters would be very challenging politically. Many note that, even after Congress reallocated the 700 MHz for commercial and public safety uses in 1997, it took 12 years before the spectrum finally was cleared for new use last year.

Furthermore, the idea of reallocating TV spectrum could "freeze" broadcasters' future business models that require existing spectrum to deliver full high-definition programming, multicasting and free mobile digital television, Wharton said.

"All of these [services] are going to be threatened if policy-makers take away part of each broadcaster's 6 MHz of spectrum and give it to broadband providers," he said.

Public-safety impact

Exactly what all of these possible spectrum scenarios would mean to the first-responder community is unclear, but most industry analysts acknowledge that the effect could be significant.

If additional spectrum is cleared for commercial use, it could make commercial networks less prone to failing because of capacity constraints during high-demand times, such as in the aftermath of a large-scale incident. Thus, commercial networks could be available more quickly for secondary purposes, but most agree that such networks still would not be appropriate for primary mission-critical communications.

Such mission-critical transmissions would be better suited for a proposed nationwide public-safety wireless broadband network, particularly if that network can be built on 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum — the 10 MHz licensed to the PSST and the 10 MHz D Block, which still is slated by law to be auctioned for commercial uses.

Not only would a D Block reallocation be helpful in the immediate future, it also would greatly enhance public-safety's long-term spectrum position, PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen said. McEwen has been outspoken in his belief that that mission-critical land-mobile voice systems will not be replaced in the near future, but he acknowledges that mission-critical voice could be delivered over a broadband network in decades to come.

"I think the future will probably bring an opportunity for us to eventually migrate to broadband technologies that will replace land mobile. But that's long term," McEwen said, noting that such a transition could be 20 to 50 years away.

With the D Block, a transition to broadband use of narrowband voice channels already allocated to public safety, and airwaves freed by the completion of 800 MHz rebanding — on top of the 10 MHz of spectrum currently held by the PSST — public safety ultimately would have almost 40 MHz of airwaves in the 700/800 MHz band, putting it in a prime position to provide broadband services to first responders long term.

Because the FCC's public-private partnership proposal failed to attract a qualifying bid, many are questioning the ability to structure an agreement that would serve public safety's needs for coverage and reliability while also allowing a commercial partner ample opportunity to make profits that will keep investors happy. As a result, the public-safety community now is seeking a reallocation of the D Block for first-responder uses, although no bill proposing such a change has been introduced in Congress.

Some wireless carriers such as T-Mobile believe the D Block should be auctioned with no public-safety obligations, which is an idea that may appeal to federal lawmakers concerned by Verizon's and AT&T's dominiation of the 700 MHz auction. However, if the FCC can identify more than 100 MHz of available spectrum for commercial uses — for instance, clearing TV channels 21-51 would make 186 MHz of spectrum available — some believe that Congress would be more willing to reallocate the D Block for public safety.

One potential problem with such a reallocation is that Congress still is counting on the D Block auction to generate about $1.4 billion for the U.S. Treasury, even though the rest of the 700 MHz auction greatly exceeded budget projections.

But Seybold said he believes reallocating the D Block for public safety is "the right thing to do," noting that Congress should accompany the reallocation with a funding mechanism to build and maintain the proposed 700 MHz network.

"None of this is going to happen without funding being in place," Seybold said. "It amazes me that the United States can print money for stimulus and all this other stuff, but they can't print a little bit more for their public-safety community."

In urban areas, Seybold said public-safety entities likely would need all 20 MHz to fulfill its missions. However, in the rest of the country, that amount of spectrum should be enough to serve more than the first-response community, which opens up opportunities for cooperative efforts and additional funding opportunities in non-urban areas.

"You've got people doing broadband stimulus, you've got the smart-grid people, you've got the public-safety people," Seybold said. "They all want spectrum, they all want to do things. What I'm saying is, on a region-by-region basis, why don't you guys join forces?"

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Spectrum allocated by FCC
for state/local public safety use
Frequency band (MHz) Megahertz
(*denotes approximation)
25-50 (VHF Low Band) 6.3
150-174 (VHF high band) 3.6
220-222 (220 MHz band) 0.1
450-470 (UHF band) 3.7
764-776/794-806 (700 MHz band) 24
806-821/851-866 (800 MHz band) 3.5
821-824/866-869 (NPSPAC band) 6
4940-4990 (4.9 GHz band) 50
Source: FCC report to Congress, Dec. 19, 2005