Fragile state of 700 MHz requires a united front
KANSAS CITY—It’s not only a good idea to knock over the apple cart once in a while, it’s often an imperative. Such was the case five years ago when public safety and Nextel were negotiating what to do about the interference that was plaguing first responder communications in the 800 MHz band. Nextel was willing to reconfigure the band, but wanted its financial contribution for doing so capped at $850 million.
Many in public safety, having grown frustrated with the situation and fearing that a first-responder death resulting from the interference was just around the corner, were eager to take the deal. But there were a few voices in the wilderness—ours included—that suggested that the cap was a lousy idea. Those who uttered the blasphemy were roundly criticized and told to butt out, lest they kill the deal. But it’s a good thing they spoke up, because Nextel spent $1 billion before the first license had been rebanded.
So, there are times when upsetting the apple cart is a good thing. This is not one of those times, however. One media outlet last week reported that the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) is thinking about pulling out of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). APCO is one of 15 organizations that comprise the PSST, which the FCC designated as the licensee for 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band that would be paired with 10 MHz of adjacent spectrum to form the backbone for a nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety. It would be built to public-safety specifications and first responders would be given priority access in large-scale emergencies.
The day after the first report, another media outlet ran a story that said APCO denied the first story. Willis Carter, APCO’s president, didn’t return a call placed to him last week, so we only can speculate for the moment as to what’s really happening. Hopefully, nothing is. But if APCO is mulling secession from the PSST, the question begs: Why?
We know that APCO isn’t happy with the PSST’s structure and has suggested some changes. It also doesn’t think the PSST has been sufficiently transparent in its dealings thus far. But it’s possible that the trouble really started when Craig Jorgensen replaced Robert Gurss as APCO’s representative on the PSST board of directors. Gurss had been a PSST vice chairman, but Jorgenson was not elected to any officer role. That likely miffed APCO.
It’s also possible that APCO simply wants a higher profile and more weight in discussions regarding the best path for developing this potentially vital network, given that it is the perceived voice of public-safety communications. I worked for a trade association for four years and I can tell you from experience that turf protection is the number-one priority of trade associations and their officials.
That said, the last thing the public-safety sector needs right now is divisiveness, and the mere suggestion that APCO might pull out of the PSST could be enough for Congress and the FCC to throw its hands in the air and walk away.
Who could blame them if they did? The D Block spectrum could then be auctioned to a commercial carrier with no strings attached, which would put additional cash into the U.S. Treasury while at the same time eliminating a giant headache for the FCC.
If APCO indeed is thinking about seceding, it needs to do some rethinking. For starters, it could find itself on the outside looking in should the PSST decide to let it walk and the FCC not care if it does. Worse, it could destroy the last, best chance to create a non-taxpayer-funded network for first responders.
Whatever APCO’s problems are with the PSST, they should be addressed behind closed doors. When everyone comes out of the room, they should be united—or at least give the appearance that they are. The future of the 700 MHz network might depend on it.
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