Taking care of the babies
During the past few months, the radio communications industry has witnessed another episode of the long-running saga What’s Wrong At 800, starring Nextel as the scheming patriarch; local operators as the lovable, but sometimes ineffective sidekick; utilities as the whispering siren that seems to be on all sides at once; and the FCC as the cantankerous dowager, who just wants everyone to get along with the howling baby: public safety.
Our story is all about public safety and how this child can manage to survive and thrive with more spectrum than all other private radio users combined. Did we overfeed it? Or, more accurately, did we feed it the wrong thing — again and again?
The objective observer might conclude that, indeed, we have been feeding this fragile child the wrong stuff. Because of it, we have created the thing that wails in the night, screaming not always for more spectrum-food, but for the right nutrition in the form of spectrum set aside for public safety’s own use, misuse, interoperability, Project 25-through-a-zillion, homeland temerity and more.
Public safety’s newest complaint is that its 800MHz systems are bombarded with interference from cellular radio systems (and Nextel) that use a low-site system architecture that desensitizes cops’ radios. In fact, all 800MHz analog operators suffer the same problem or threat. But the FCC didn’t respond to the rest of the operators. Instead, the grandma-like protective urge didn’t hit the agency until the baby cried.
After all interested parties checked the crib to make sure that the poor thing didn’t need emergency care, most of the family decided that the baby needed its own nursery, its own bottle, its own nanny, its own everything (including, perhaps, a swat on the bottom). The swat is for hinting that it didn’t just need a little care. The price of shutting up might include some additional spectrum as part of the pacifier.
After checking its general health, most interested parties concluded that public safety would be better served by creating an incubator for all future safety services at 700MHz, adding to public safety’s already considerable presence in that band and creating contiguous swaths of spectrum across former UHF-TV channels 52-59 to go along with public safety’s allocation at UHF-TV channels 60-69. This would remove public safety from the 800MHz band and allow the commercial and industrial operators to reach their own treaty, without needing to tip-toe around the baby.
Despite this wholly logical idea, some resist the notion. First, broadcasters that remain in this band don’t expect to migrate to their new DTV digs until every man, woman, child and buck-toothed lemur owns an HDTV set, unless they are paid a hefty sum from whoever buys the spectrum in a scheduled auction. The FCC would like these broadcasters to be reasonable. It won’t happen.
Broadcasters are the politicians’ other favorite child. As is public safety, the broadcasters are coddled and fed and praised incessantly for convincing us that their willingness to air The Osbournes, Smackdown, Access Hollywood and Fear Factor is a noble endeavor. This titanic toddler throws more tantrums than any other, and Grandma FCC, with the urging of Grandpa Congress, dotes upon it while others shrink from its discomforting infantile outbursts.
What would be logical and fair is to let the broadcast baby have its spectrum until 2006, the already scheduled date for the move to DTV spectrum, while public safety gears up to move its myriad uses into the band. Because public safety requires at least 14 meetings and 85 regional seminars to do anything, plus a host of funding initiatives, council meetings, board meetings, public hearings, working groups, and numerous bureaucratic efforts, the 2006 date should be just right.
And although moving public safety into the hopefully soon-to-be unoccupied crib of the broadcasters makes a lot of sense (this hand-me-down is a beaut), the public safety operators aren’t sure they want to move there, and the broadcasters don’t want them there. Why, you may ask, won’t the babies stop crying?
Public safety wants to make sure that if it moves, someone else will pick up the more than a billion bucks in hard costs to make the move. It doesn’t care who pays, as long as it’s somebody other than local governments. And because few entities are willing or able to pick up the tab, the flight to 700 looks like a pay-as-you-go problem for public safety.
The broadcasters don’t fear much, but they are aware that if their ability to fleece the public by continued occupation of UHF-TV channels 52-59 in the form of free spectrum rent is ever to be disturbed, the one group that could cause early (or timely) eviction is public safety. And if broadcasters are tossed, no auction winner may line their pockets to get them to stop squatting on the channels.
Meanwhile, as in all good dramas, another character looms on the edges of our story in the form of the federal government. The feds will soon announce an initiative to mandate interoperability among federal, state and local public safety operators — to coordinate the war on terrorism and to be more responsive for disaster relief. The logical and perhaps only spectrum available for making interoperability a reality is at 700MHz.
So, the drama at 800 extends quickly and appropriately into the 700MHz band, where reluctant and sometimes recalcitrant factions have entrenched their respective positions of non-cooperation. The solution to the problem required an inventive and committed FCC to delay the scheduled auction of the 700MHz channels, tell public safety that they can have the bands for relocating out of 800MHz, and tell the broadcasters to pipe down and begin packing for new spectrum digs.
The FCC demonstrated the political will to truly manage the spectrum and delayed the auction until Jan. 14, 2003. The FCC resisted the shrill demands of the incumbent UHF-TV broadcasters and showed itself worthy of the moniker “expert, independent agency.”
Schwaninger, MRT’s regulatory consultant, is the principal in the law firm of Schwaninger & Associates, Washington, which is counsel to Small Business in Telecommunications. Schwaninger is also a fellow of the Radio Club of America. His email address is [email protected].