700 MHz reallocation gains support
Those hoping to convince the FCC to open a proceeding regarding the reallocation of 30 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum — currently designated to be auctioned by February 2008 — so it can be used for a nationwide broadband network for public safety, but run by commercial operators, gained support from two major public-safety entities last month.
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) asked Congress and the FCC to seek public comment on the Cyren Call Communications proposal to build such a network (MRT, June, page 52). The spectrum would be allocated to a public-safety broadband trust, which would then lease the airwaves to commercial operators with the understanding that the operators would build and maintain a public-safety-grade wireless broadband network that also could be used to offer commercial services.
Although NENA’s focus is on 911 systems, the organization did not hesitate to take a position on the spectrum issue, said Patrick Halley, NENA’s government affairs director.
“More and more, NENA is looking at 911 not as a stand-alone system but as part of bigger system,” Halley said. “We believe the 911 system of the future will let video from a robbery be sent to a PSAP or allow a picture to be sent from a wireless phone to a dispatcher. But all of that’s going to [require] a broadband connection.”
NENA officials believe the public/private partnership proposed by Cyren Call represents an efficient use of spectrum and provides a realistic economic model for the buildout and maintenance of a nationwide broadband network, Halley said.
In its statement, NENA asked that the proceeding not impact the 24 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum already dedicated to public safety nor the funding for interoperability and public-safety answering point (PSAP) upgrades earmarked from proceeds of the 700 MHz auction.
Although Cyren Call — which is headed by Nextel Communications co-founder Morgan O’Brien — asked the FCC to open a proceeding to solicit public comment on its proposal, company officials have acknowledged that the commission needs direction from Congress to consider the notion of not auctioning the spectrum, which is expected to generate about $5 billion for the U.S. Treasury.
Meanwhile, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) issued a statement that said the 24 MHz of spectrum already allocated to public safety in the 700 MHz band — scheduled to be cleared by television broadcasters in February 2009 — is “insufficient to meet public safety’s future requirements.” But while expressing support for the public/private partnership model for a 700 MHz network, the APCO statement stopped short of endorsing the Cyren Call proposal.
However, it did note that Cyren Call’s public-safety broadband trust idea “may be a viable framework.”
“What we’re saying is that we support the concept and the 30 MHz for public safety,” APCO President Wanda McCarley said in an interview with MRT at APCO’s annual conference in Orlando last month. “I think the big challenge is getting that spectrum off the auction block. That’s the critical issue.”
APCO issued its statement one day after O’Brien outlined a plan to address the projected $5 billion budget shortfall Congress would face if the 30 MHz of 700 MHz airwaves were to be licensed to public safety. The public-safety broadband trust that would be the licensee of the 30 MHz of spectrum could guarantee the U.S. Treasury the $5 billion currently budgeted, O’Brien said.
The trust would borrow the money, pay the Treasury immediately and repay the loan primarily with money received from the winning bids submitted by the commercial operators wanting to build the public-safety-grade network.
Many Beltway sources have said Congress would not consider the public/private partnership proposal until the budget issue is resolved. McCarley said having a way to address this sticky political issue was crucial to her organization supporting the public/private proposal.
“We’ve held back so far and said the devil is in the details,” she said. “Without having that huge financial piece addressed, we were not sure that it was worth our … political capital.”
McCarley said she expects other public-safety associations to join APCO in supporting the 700 MHz broadband network. “We have talked with our industry partners, and I think that we’re on the same page,” McCarley said.
Such support is a significant victory for Cyren Call, which has struggled to garner support on Capitol Hill for a proposal opposed by commercial wireless carriers that also are key players in the development of telecom-reform legislation being considered by Congress. Having public safety’s support at a time when national security is a high priority greatly improves the proposal’s chances.
“APCO’s statement reflects the strong public interest, vision and leadership of its members,” O’Brien said in a statement. “As the statement notes, APCO has long advocated for additional spectrum that will enable effective public-safety communications, including advanced broadband applications. At present, such capabilities are widely available to commercial sectors and private citizens in the U.S. — but not to the vast majority of our first responders.”
Other public-safety organizations expressing support for a proceeding on the Cyren Call proposal include the Michigan and Illinois chapters of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). Harlin McEwen, chairman of the IACP’s Communications and Technology Committee, said the IACP’s national organization would consider taking similar action this month. “It’s not that we’re not interested, we just have a lot of people on vacation now,” he said.
Alan Caldwell, senior adviser for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), said his organization has not taken a formal position on the Cyren Call proposal but is “actively engaged” in the issue.
“We are absolutely looking at that,” Caldwell said. “We’ve recognized the need for broadband capability. … We’re looking at any and all proposals.”
To date, Cyren Call has not suggested the makeup of the public-safety broadband trust that would oversee the public/private network. But Mc-Ewen said it would have to be a public-safety-friendly organization for the emergency-response community to continue its support of the concept.
“At a very high level, it’s very clear that the plan would be totally under the control of public-safety leadership,” McEwen said.