D Block picture gets murkier
FCC commissioners’ task of determining what to do with the 10 MHz D block in the 700 MHz band and the adjacent 10 MHz of public-safety broadband spectrum could become increasingly complex, judging from the wide variety of recommendations made last month.
Comments submitted by the commission’s June 20 deadline ranged from recommendations of relatively minor tweaks — for instance, eliminating the reserve price and default criteria for the D block — to the FCC’s previous public/private partnership model to wholesale changes, such as forgoing the auction for a request-for-proposal (RFP) process or stripping the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) of its license in the band.
Within the public-safety community, comments indicated that consensus support still remains for a public/private partnership that would build and maintain a nationwide broadband wireless network that could be used by first responders.
“There may be some things we may never agree on, but we’re going to work as hard as we can to ensure that we’re all in support of the broadband network,” said Willis Carter, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. “That’s what it’s all about — it’s about public safety and providing this network.”
While still embracing the public/private network, APCO expressed concern with the PSST’s makeup and operations — views echoed by the National Emergency Number Association. In its comments, APCO said the PSST has an “over-reliance” on its three officers and its adviser — Cyren Call Communications, chaired by Morgan O’Brien — to make decisions.
Instead, APCO recommends that the PSST board be reduced from its current 15 members — a constituency mandated by the FCC last fall — to a board of eight to 12 members and that the board include members with expertise in business and finance.
“We feel like that would balance the board out and potentially reduce the reliance upon an agent,” Carter said. “If nothing else, it would help us verify … that we’re doing the right things.”
Carter also expressed concern with the management of the PSST board, which he said tends to deal with matters in a “rush-rush-type situation,” saying that such scenarios place board members such as APCO representative Craig Jorgenson at a distinct disadvantage.
“If that board exists, that board should be making decisions and should be privy to what’s going on probably sooner than it has been in the past,” Carter said. “Craig represents APCO … he doesn’t represent Craig Jorgenson. It makes it very difficult for Craig if issues are brought up without prior notice, and he has no time to vet with the APCO board or the association on some very important issues. That’s not the way we feel it should be.”
Without changes regarding the PSST board, APCO said the FCC should consider rescinding the PSST’s license to public safety’s 10 MHz of broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz band.
Several industry sources questioned the FCC’s willingness to revisit the makeup of the PSST board, which it created just a year ago after months of consideration. Others questioned APCO’s suggestion of adding business-savvy experts to the board, given that most would require compensation — a difficult proposition for the funding-strapped PSST — and that the board is supposed to represent public safety.
As for concerns about a lack of openness regarding deliberations, PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen said that much of the PSST’s work to date has been in preparation for negotiations with a potential D Block winner, which the PSST wants to keep private for regulatory and strategic reasons. In addition, an FCC gag order from early December to April also greatly limited the amount of disclosure the PSST could make.
McEwen said he believes the PSST would be much more open after negotiations with the D Block winner are completed. “Absolutely,” he said. “I believe in an open and transparent process, but we have been in some ways hampered by the fact that we’ve been developing strategies for negotiations.”
Several commenters expressed concern with the PSST’s relationship with Cyren Call, which serves as the organization’s adviser and also its lender — Cyren Call’s $4 million loan is PSST’s sole source of funding because the organization has no assets.
Meanwhile, telecommunications giant Verizon described the D block concept as “fundamentally — and fatally — flawed” in a manner that cannot be fixed by tweaks to auction rules. In its filing, Verizon states there simply is no business model that would allow a commercial operator to realize a return on its investment in a broadband wireless network designed to meet public-safety needs.
In fact, the carrier contends that the incremental costs of hardening an existing commercial network and extending coverage for public-safety purposes would exceed $20 billion — a dramatic figure, considering Cyren Call’s high-end estimates for building a public-safety-grade broadband network from scratch is $20 billion.
Verizon recommends that the FCC seek a commercial partner for public safety through an RFP process instead of through an auction. Such a process would allow commercial operators to approach public safety with a variety of technical and business models while providing the sector with important flexibility, according to the carrier.
“Unlike an auction, which might force the government into a long-term arrangement with an unacceptable partner that just happens to be the highest bidder, the RFP process allows for the considered evaluation of a potential partner on a range of criteria to increase the chances the partnership will succeed,” Verizon’s filing states.
Mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said “there’s no way in the world” a single operator would be willing to assume the costs of a nationwide network. However, Seybold said he believes there are various models that would allow multiple carriers to participate that could be promising.
“If you figured out some way so that, while everybody is building out their own 700 MHz system, they just added a channel card or two for the D Block and public safety, the bulk of the network wouldn’t cost a whole lot of money,” Seyblold said. “You’d have to do some hardening and things like that, but it could be done a lot less expensively if people who are building out their own 700 MHz stuff added this piece to it.”
ON THE CLOCK
FCC faces a tight timeframe as it revisits its public/private partnership proposal in the 700 MHz band.
700 MHz auction concludes without a qualifying bid on the D block, leaving public safety without a commercial partner to build a wireless broadband network.
FCC votes to seek comments to alter the commission’s approach to the D block.
Comments due to FCC.
Reply comments due to FCC.
FCC’s targeted timeframe for conducting a reauction of the D block.
National election day.
Jan. 20, 2009
Inauguration Day: The incoming administration likely will choose a new FCC chairman.