FCC commissioners yesterday tentatively concluded that public safety spectrum in the 700 MHz band should not be used for wideband applications and opened a proceeding that will include consideration of a public-private partnership proposal from Frontline Wireless.

Under the Frontline plan, 10 MHz of the 60 MHz in the 700 MHz band allocated for commercial use would be auctioned to entities agreeing to operate wholesale wireless broadband networks. In addition, the operator also would be able to reach an agreement with a national public-safety licensee to utilize that 12 MHz of that sector’s spectrum to build a public-private network for public-safety use.

Calling the recent lack of progress in public-safety interoperability “a truly monumental national failure,” Commissioner Michael Copps said he supports soliciting comments on the Frontline proposal and other innovative ideas but questioned whether a public-private network realistically will work for public safety.

Describing public-safety networks as a “fundamentally different beast” than commercial networks, Copps said a commercial operator wanting to partner with public safety should provide 99.999% reliability, talk groups, device-to-device communication, priority to public safety and ubiquitous coverage—all under the watchful eye of the FCC.

Copps said he is skeptical whether economic realities will allow any commercial entity to meet these obligations over the long term.

“I’ve seen too many companies, many with genuinely good intentions, promise to abide by a slew of special public-interest conditions when they come to us seeking a license,” Copps said. “But then, a few years down the road—maybe after a change in management or sometimes just a change in attitude—they suddenly develop an overpowering interest in reducing costs and increasing profits beyond the level that their original commitments would allow.

“When this seemingly inevitable shift occurs, the commercial operator will face strong pressure to cut back on the costly features that public safety demands and to start charging higher prices that commercial users but not public safety users can swallow.”

Other commissioners were much more optimistic about the notion of a public-private partnership building and operating a nationwide broadband wireless network for public safety, with Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called the Frontline proposal “intriguing” but acknowledged that many questions remain.

“I applaud the initiative,” Adelstein said. “But how do we make sure that this program is held accountable? Primarily, how does the Commission ensure the … [commercial] licensee truly satisfies the needs of public safety in deploying and operating the network?

“We’re making decisions that will impact the future of wireless services for years to come.”

Frontline today issued a release expressing concern about the FCC commissioners’ “hesitancy” but hopes to allays such fears during the proceeding’s comment period.

“The FCC has raised a number of important questions about this spectrum, and we very much look forward to answering them in the next few weeks,” Frontline spokesperson Mary Greczyn said during an interview with MRT.

In addition, the commission tentatively concluded that that the 12 MHz of public-safety spectrum earmarked for narrowband communications be consolidated into the upper frequencies of its 700 MHz allocations. The other 12 MHz of public-safety spectrum in the band would be consolidate for broadband uses, a choice that would nix pursuit of wideband data applications desired by many public-safety entities, particularly those in rural areas.

These tentative findings reflect philosophies similar to the Broadband Optimization Plan proposed by guard-band licensees Access Spectrum and Pegasus Communications.

"We are pleased that the FCC indicated that it will seek comment on our alternative band plan, since it achieves many of the benefits of the Broadband Optimization Plan,” Access Spectrum Chairman and CEO Michael Gottdenker stated in an e-mail response to MRT. “We look forward to continuing to collaborate closely with the public-safety and commercial communities to ensure the Upper 700 MHz band is optimized for both public safety and commercial use."

Scheduled to be a usual morning meeting, the FCC did not start the session until after 6:30 p.m. EST, as commissioners and staff worked to complete final details on the agenda items. While delays to start a meeting often do occur when contentious items are on the agenda, yesterday’s meeting was the FCC’s first “night game,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said.