FCC takes a big step in the 700 MHz band
This week’s FCC notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) exploring the possibility of a nationwide, public-safety-grade broadband network that uses the 700 MHz spectrum already allocated to public safety is groundbreaking by itself, and its implications promise to impact all wireless operators.
FCC commissioners unanimously approved the item, which would allocate the 12 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum currently earmarked for wideband use and designate it for broadband. All of the spectrum would be given to a national public-safety broadband licensee, which could lease the airwaves to commercial operators to build and to operate the network for public-safety use on a fee-for-service basis and for commercial use when public safety is not using the spectrum.
If this sounds familiar, it should. The FCC proposal includes most of the public-private partnership principles included in the Cyren Call Communications proposal with one major change — the allocated spectrum. Both proposals would utilize the 700 MHz band, but Cyren Call would reallocate 30 MHz now earmarked for auction to commercial carriers to public safety, while the FCC is proposing to use 12 MHz already appropriated to public safety.
On the surface, the Cyren Call proposal is a much better deal for the public-safety community. Not only would public safety receive more spectrum, but the public-private partnership concept would be tried on “newfound” spectrum — not frequencies public-safety officials have been planning to access for a decade.
But the Cyren Call proposal is not an option for the FCC at the moment, as the commission noted in its dismissal of the Cyren Call rulemaking petition last month. Right now, the law states that the 30 MHz of spectrum needed to make Cyren Call’s vision a reality will be auctioned in early 2008.
Does the FCC action signal the end of the Cyren Call proposal? Not at all. In fact, the NPRM is structured in a manner that lets commenters address key outstanding questions in the Cyren Call concept — governance, technological possibilities, economic opportunities for commercial carriers and more details on the public-private relationship — that must be answered for the concept to be pursued.
Supporters and opponents largely ignored these critical issues during the recently concluded Cyren Call public-comment period, but public-safety entities spoke loud and clear that they wanted to be able to consider the proposal. Obviously, the FCC is listening, as this NPRM is about as close as the agency can come to considering the notion without overstepping its legal authority.
“I think it’s important to recognize that this isn’t a substitute for many of the other proposals out there that other people have an opportunity to consider and that Congress is considering, but we need to do all we can to address those issues in a creative way,” FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin said. “This is an opportunity for us to do so.”
Indeed, the fact that the FCC proposal does not threaten the scheduled auction should encourage commercial operators to address the economic realities of a shared network, not the legal fact that it can’t be considered yet under the Cyren Call plan. In addition, the notion of a public-private arrangement should be evaluated solely on its merits, not on whether a commenter trusts or distrusts Cyren Call Chairman Morgan O’Brien. Having the proposal come from the FCC should help.
The NPRM also forces public safety to take a harder look at the public-private partnership concept. With the Cyren Call proposal, it was easy for public safety to say, “Sure,” because public-safety officials had no other hope of securing the additional 30 MHz of spectrum. Now that the FCC has proposed using spectrum that public safety has planned to use for a decade, expect more debate about whether a public-private broadband partnership is the best option — and under what conditions.
Ultimately, I believe most proponents of the public-private partnership will agree that more than 12 MHz is needed to make the concept work. In a few years, 12 MHz may not be enough to deliver the broadband services public safety needs, much less also support the kind of business case to make the venture worthwhile to a commercial operator. It’s questionable whether public safety is interested in letting its other 12 MHz — earmarked for narrowband — be used for broadband on a secondary basis, as the NPRM contemplates.
That would bring us back to the Cyren Call proposal, which calls for more spectrum to be added to the mix. Hopefully, Congress will monitor the record of this NPRM closely, so its members can make informed decisions whether to alter the current 700 MHz auction plans.
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