700 MHz policies to be clarified
A lengthy debate regarding the future use of 700 MHz spectrum appears to be approaching a decision point, with an FCC proceeding on service rules for auctioning the frequencies expected to conclude at the end of last month.
What direction the FCC and/or Congress would pursue with respect to the 700 MHz band remained in limbo as of press time, but the conclusion of the accelerated FCC proceeding — reply comments were due May 30, just 35 days after the commission voted on the matter — is expected to be a precursor to critical policy-making before the auction, which is scheduled to begin by the end of January 2008.
In its April order, the FCC tentatively concluded that the 12 MHz of public-safety spectrum in the band should be used for broadband services instead of the wideband uses allowed today. In addition, the order initiated an unusually short proceeding to solicit comments on potential service rules for the auction, including those necessary to enable the Frontline Wireless public/private partnership proposal for a nationwide broadband network for public safety.
Under the Frontline plan, 10 MHz of the 60 MHz in the 700 MHz band allocated for commercial use would be auctioned to entities agreeing to operate wholesale wireless broadband networks. The operators also would be able to reach an agreement with a national public-safety licensee to utilize 12 MHz of that sector’s spectrum to build a public/private network for public-safety use.
As a public/private partnership, the Frontline Wireless plan is similar to the Cyren Call proposal introduced more than a year ago, with two key differences: The Cyren Call model would utilize 30 MHz of the 60 MHz earmarked for commercial use, and a single public-safety entity would be licensed for all spectrum used by the network instead of the two-licensee approach proposed by Frontline Wireless.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps voted for the measure but expressed concern whether a public/private partnership can meet public safety’s needs and the economic interests of a commercial operator.
“I’ve seen too many companies, many with genuinely good intentions, promise to abide by a slew of special public-interest conditions when they come to us seeking a license,” Copps said. “But then a few years down the road — maybe after a change in management or sometimes just a change in attitude — they suddenly develop an overpowering interest in reducing costs and increasing profits beyond the level that their original commitments would allow.
“When this seemingly inevitable shift occurs, the commercial operator will face strong pressure to cut back on the costly features that public safety demands and to start charging higher prices that commercial users, but not public-safety users, can swallow.”
Another difference between the Frontline Wireless and Cyren Call proposals is that the Cyren Call plan can be pursued only if Congress approves enabling legislation — something Beltway sources indicate is increasingly unlikely to happen.
Perhaps with this in mind, Cyren Call met with FCC officials to share the company’s thoughts about a public/private partnership as envisioned by Frontline Wireless, and Chairman Morgan O’Brien said Cyren Call would consider bidding in the 700 MHz auction. However, O’Brien said he believes retail wireless carriers — among them, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility (formerly Cingular Wireless) — should be allowed to participate, not just wholesale wireless providers as Frontline Wireless has recommended.
“We welcome Mr. O’Brien as a bidding competitor for the E Block spectrum,” said Frontline Wireless CEO Haynes Griffin in a statement. “But we trust that the public-safety community will not fall for the suggestion that it would be better off sharing spectrum with a large incumbent carrier whose core strategies are far removed from those of the public-safety community.”
Meanwhile, the University of Colorado’s Silicon Flatirons telecommunications program released a report co-authored by Dale Hatfield and Phil Weiser that was based on a private, two-day roundtable in April that focused on the establishment of a next-generation wireless network for public safety.
Sponsored by CTIA, the trade association representing commercial wireless carriers — staunch opponents of the Cyren Call proposal generally endorsed by public safety — the roundtable was a source of concern for public-safety officials prior to its beginning.
“There was so much skepticism going into that meeting that public safety didn’t know if its representatives were going to go,” said Charles Werner, fire chief for Charlottesville, Va., one of the roundtable participants.
But Werner said he was pleasantly surprised by the discussion at the roundtable and the subsequent 37-page report, which he said contains “realistic and reasonable” observations and recommendations. The report acknowledges public safety’s need for a next-generation network (NGN) and that public safety will continue to use its private land mobile radio systems as its primary communications vehicle until an NGN has been built and proved to be reliable — something that likely will take more than a decade.
“In many respects, the near term presents the most challenging public-safety funding demands of all — policy-makers must both make do with legacy systems and facilitate the development of an NGN system,” the Flatirons report states.
Two models are identified as possible ways to establish an NGN for public safety that leverages commercial technologies. A “government as contractor” model is considered more “straightforward” because it more closely resembles the existing method for building public-safety communications networks. However, there are considerable questions about whether Congress is willing to appropriate the $20 billion necessary to make this solution work.
In searching for a “second-best option,” the report considers a “public-safety spectrum licensee” model similar to those proposed by Cyren Call and Frontline Wireless in the 700 MHz band. Although the potential of such a public/private partnership is great, it is important that public safety’s interests are not overshadowed by a commercial operator’s desire to make money.
“In short, if commercial providers that gain access to spectrum with a requirement to serve public safety are able to skimp on key requirements without any real consequences, they will have considerable incentives to do so,” the report states.
Weiser said a commercial entity in a public/private partnership must understand its obligations and that mechanisms — the report suggests performance bonds or liens — exist to enforce those obligations. Crafting such language likely will be difficult, but Weiser said the challenge is “not insurmountable. … I’m encouraged that it can happen.”
Although not noted in the report, perhaps the most important news from the roundtable was that both Weiser and Werner said incumbent wireless providers indicated they are interested in participating in such a public/private partnership. Weiser cited several reasons why it makes sense for the carriers.
“Public safety does have real money that will be put on the table to pay for these services … and the technologies needed to serve public safety’s needs are getting cheaper,” Weiser said. “If public safety is on a carrier’s network, that’s a fairly powerful statement about the quality of that network, in terms of reliability and coverage, so it’s in their commercial interest to do that. And there’s the access to additional spectrum.
“It’s something I believe many of them are going to be interested in.”
Regardless of which path the FCC and Congress choose, Weiser believes it is critical that an NGN for public safety be established in the 700 MHz band.
“It will be a real missed opportunity and tragic if it doesn’t work out,” he said.
FLURRY OF ACTIVITY AT 700 MHZ
FCC issues order for new 700 MHz proceeding that includes consideration of the Frontline Wireless proposal.
Cyren Call Chairman Morgan O’Brien states his company would consider bidding in the 700 MHz auction.
Silicon Flatirons releases a report detailing the findings of its CTIA-sponsored conference on next-generation networks for public safety.
Comments due in FCC’s 700 MHz proceeding.
Reply comments due in FCC’s 700 MHz proceeding.
FCC to host summit on “Building Interoperable Public-Safety Communications.”
Date by which the FCC must begin the 700 MHz auction, according to current law.