All crazy on the 700 MHz front
Two new proposals, an unexpected shift by a presidential candidate and overtures of a possible delay in the digital television transition have left the 700 MHz band shrouded in uncertainty with a spectrum auction in the band mandated to begin in less than 10 months.
As promised, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation proposing a nationwide broadband network for public safety using 30 MHz of spectrum slated to be auctioned to commercial operators. But the bill differed significantly from the approach the Republican presidential candidate vowed to support in a speech delivered to the International Association of Chiefs of Police in January.
Like most national public-safety organizations, the IACP had expressed support for the concepts included in the proposal made by Cyren Call Communications, including the award of the 30 MHz to a public-safety broadband trust, which would lease the airwaves to commercial operators in a public/private partnership (see story on page 34). McCain’s bill proposes to use the same spectrum and build a public-safety-grade network, but the airwaves would remain part of the 700 MHz auction scheduled to begin by January 2008, and the license would be awarded to the highest bidder, not a public-safety trust. The difference is monumental, said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the IACP’s communications and technology committee.
“If the spectrum is auctioned to a commercial company, and we are subservient to a commercial company, I don’t see where public safety will be in control or be able to have enough impact on building the kind of network we envision in the public-safety broadband trust proposal,” McEwen said.
There is a scenario that would result in the public-safety broadband trust receiving the license to the spectrum, but that would happen only if no commercial entities bid on the 30 MHz being auctioned. In that case, the public-safety trust would become the licensee for the spectrum, would pay as much as $5 billion for the airwaves and would try to convince commercial operators to build and maintain a nationwide network — while leasing spectrum the carriers previously did not want.
McCain’s legislation would establish a public-safety working group that would be tasked to identify the characteristics public safety would need in its network and submit the findings to the FCC, which would include the guidelines in the service rules for bidders participating in the auction. But McEwen said the working group would have to do its work in an unrealistic time frame and without the benefit of funds to hire technical assistance.
McCain’s legislation was introduced just days after the unveiling of another proposal, this one from Frontline Wireless, a wholesale wireless start-up headed by a trio of high-profile names: CEO Haynes Griffin, founder of Vanguard Cellular and past chairman of CTIA; Janice Obuchowski, former administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; and Vice Chairman Reed Hundt, who was FCC chairman during the Clinton administration.
Frontline’s proposal also contemplates a public/private network, but it would be built on 22 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum — 12 MHz of spectrum already allocated to public safety dedicated to a national public-safety licensee — and 10 MHz of commercial spectrum auctioned to the highest bidder.
“We think that would be adequate,” Obuchowski said. “There may be others who say 30 [MHz is needed], but 22 is a pretty good number.”
Frontline unveiled the proposal as a comment in the FCC proceeding contemplating a public/private broadband network on 12 MHz of spectrum already allocated to public safety — a notion generally opposed by public-safety organizations but supported by commercial wireless representatives.
In addition to using its proposed broadband network to support public safety, Frontline plans to leverage it to build a commercial business as a wholesale network operator serving mobile virtual network operators, not as a direct retailer to consumers. While many cellular industry representatives have questioned whether a company can satisfy shareholders and public safety simultaneously, Obuchowski said the start-up capital raised by Frontline is an indication that a public/private arrangement can work financially.
“The kinds of people who are investors are visionaries, and they are also as patriotic as most people consider themselves to be,” she said. “And the vision of being part of a pioneering, fourth-generation network that’s designed to accommodate a variety of needs and requirements is exciting to them.”
An advantage to the Frontline proposal is that it technically does not require Congress to pass new legislation, although several Beltway sources indicated that the FCC would want some guidance from Capitol Hill before changing the 700 MHz service rules to accommodate the proposal.
Meanwhile, McCain’s decision not to back the Cyren Call concept and the emergence of the Frontline proposal could mark the end of Cyren Call being considered seriously, as there is little chance anyone on Capitol Hill will sponsor enabling legislation, several industry observers and Beltway sources said.
“I think Frontline kind of chopped [Cyren Call] off at the knees,” said Andy Seybold, wireless analyst for Outlook-4Mobility. “If you look at the two proposals — and I don’t think either one is right, I think there’s better options — Frontline really did a better job of saying, ‘Here’s where the feds get their money, here’s how public safety gets its spectrum, here’s how it goes out for auction and here’s how it gets done.’”
Meanwhile, House Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) indicated during a speech before the National Association of Broadcasters that his committee may reconsider the Feb. 17, 2009, date for the DTV transition that Congress established last year. While Dingell and others are worried that a shabby transition could undermine many Capitol Hill re-election efforts, a desire inside the Beltway to try to sort through the multiple public/private proposals for a long-term solution for public safety could delay the current schedule, Seybold said.
“Ten months is a short time to move a mountain,” he said. “I think what will happen is that the spectrum auctions are going to get delayed. If the auctions happen in January, I will be flabbergasted.”
700 MHZ SCORECARD
Characteristics of the public-private broadband proposals using 700 MHz spectrum
|Proposal||Spectrum amount||Spectrum type||Licensee||New law required||Overlay network|
|Cyren Call||30 MHz||COM||PSBT||Yes||Yes|
|* If no commercial operator made a qualified bid, the spectrum would be licensed to a public-safety broadband trust.
PS Public safety
PSBT Public-Safety Broadband Trust
|Source: Cyren Call Communications, John McCain, Frontline Wireless and the FCC|