Zany ideas for a new year
Just when we thought the business end of two-way FM communications couldn’t get any crazier, maybe it has.
First, Auction 40, the FCC’s auction of lower band paging channels, has finally (and thankfully) concluded after a whopping 140 rounds. Demonstrating the bitter independence of some small system operators, 10 rounds of bidding kept going with as few as two bids. Only about a third of the total BEA-pop-frequency-thingees (basic economic area) were sold, the remainder being retained by the FCC for future auction. About $13 million was raised, not even “walking-around money” as FCC icons go, and several VHF and UHF paired frequencies went unbid. In fairness, the auction was really for the “white space” between incumbent operators, but numerous channel pairs (base and mobile authorizations) in the former Bell System allocation blocks appeared to go unnoticed. Because of wholesale abandonment of older IMTS systems, these channels are basically “clear” with tremendous opportunity for an entrepreneurial sort.
Jim Johnson, the cantankerous engineering manager of Mobilfone Paging in Kansas City, MO, came up with a (initially, at least) good idea: Why not acquire the rights to these geographic licenses and lease them back, either as part of a hardware system or as part of a network service, to local government entities? Jim pointed out one ironic reality — it would probably be cheaper to acquire the whole BEA license than to pay for frequency coordination for only one system.
Several carriers expended small-to-medium bucks to “insure” their own operations by protecting the white space areas contiguous to their service and interference contours. But other carriers or speculators bid usurious sums to secure access to this new spectrum. The highest price I found in our area was $34k for a 10-year authorization to use just one UHF pair. Someone has an optimistic outlook for the future of the independent Radioman.
The second item of interest is the white paper submitted to the FCC by Nextel. It proposes to realign 800MHz frequency blocks involving public safety (which will involve realigning several thousand radios, as well). Nextel’s idea is to shuffle the bands to provide contiguous blocks for similar services, and it appears to me that Nextel may be on to something. For its initiative, cooperation and trouble, all the company seems to want is an additional 10MHz of spectrum — and it appears willing to pony up about $500 million for retuning. That sounds like a lot of money, but if your debt is $13 billion, it’s only another 3.8%. Besides, as someone once told me, “It’s just Monopoly money, anyway.”
Much like the almost unimaginable, and certainly unprecedented, Nextwave “deal-o’-the-century,” which netted that firm about $6 billion for not building a modern, “carrier’s carrier” communications system, hustling up an additional 10MHz spectrum block seems a small price if it really would help out public safety.
Also part of this reallocation deal involves pitching the incumbent broadcasters off their 700MHz authorizations. A broadcast authorization may be a license to print money, but these folks have logistics problems too, not the least of which is “on what tower are we going to place the additional digital antenna?” Even if, as Walt Kelly’s Pogo said, the “gummint” needs to help out, it certainly can’t be any more costly than the Nextwave adventure. And with the prospect for a significant addition — and consolidation — of public safety spectrum, it’s a far cry better expenditure of FCC staff time and gummint money.
Dunford, MRT’s public safety consultant, is technical services consultant for the Lenexa, KS, Police Department. He is a member of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials — International. You can email Dunford at email@example.com.