FCC drafts, public safety worries
FCC commissioners unanimously adopted new draft rules for the reauction of the 10 MHz D Block in the 700 MHz band in pursuit of its public/private partnership vision for a shared network, but public-safety representatives have raised a variety of concerns regarding the proposal.
Although there were no votes in opposition to the draft rules, all commissioners expressed reservations about various aspects of the proposal. However, in an attempt to approve final auction rules by the end of the year, the matter was approved.
“Putting forth an admittedly imperfect item is better than doing nothing,” Commissioner Robert McDowell said.
Early this year, the FCC tried to auction the D Block under rules that would ensure the shared network would approach public-safety standards, including coverage for 99.3% of the U.S. population and significant backup-power requirements. But no wireless operator submitted a qualifying bid, citing the public-safety requirements; the fact that the license was nationwide; uncertainty in several rules affecting the business model; and the role of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), the public-safety licensee partner.
In an effort to address these issues, the FCC has proposed myriad rules designed to make the D Block more attractive to potential bidders. Although operators will be able to bid for a nationwide license, they also will have the option of bidding on regional licenses for either of two technologies — WiMAX or LTE. If there is no nationwide bidder, the technology chosen for the network would be the one that covers more of the U.S. population, although a minimum of 50% of the population must be covered for the FCC to award licenses.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps expressed concern about the 50% threshold, noting that licenses could be awarded with as few as 11 of the 58 regions receiving winning bids.
Within a region, the FCC proposes relaxed coverage requirements, with New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., being identified as the only metropolitan areas in the continental U.S. where an operator would be required to provide 98% coverage. Elsewhere in the continental U.S., a D Block licensee would be required to provide 90% to 94% coverage.
PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen said his organization wants greater coverage requirements but noted that the PSST proposal would not approach the 99.3% level that failed in the previous auction.
McEwen said the PSST board also is concerned with wording in the proposal that would require the organization to have a three-fourths super majority — as opposed to the current two-thirds super majority — to pass items and mandate a new election of PSST officers within 30 days of the rules becoming effective. That language also includes a stipulation that none of the current PSST officers — including McEwen — could be re-elected to their current posts.
“Generally speaking, I think the board is concerned that the FCC is entering into the internal affairs of the PSST far greater than they ought to be,” McEwen said. “One of the things that's a concern is that they don't impose any such rules on any other licensee under any circumstance, and there are no such restrictions on the D Block winner or winners.”
Mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold described many aspects of the FCC proposal as “ludicrous,” noting that data throughput requirements are not adequate for 4G and that the PSST needs more than the proposed cap of $5 million per year for its operations.
With November elections promising a new federal administration will be in place early next year, Seybold said the current efforts may be for naught. “I believe all of this is a waste of time,” he said.
Other questions are being raised. The state of New York and New York City have approached the FCC with the notion of building a public-safety-grade LTE network as a pilot on the spectrum currently licensed to the PSST. Jonathan Spanos, director of New York state's interoperability program, said several other major cities — Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco and Miami were mentioned — also have indicated that they question whether a public/private shared network would meet their needs.
“We're not necessarily in a position that, if they build [a public/private shared network], we would come,” Spanos said.
While some big-city public-safety agencies apparently do not want to participate in the shared-network concept, the American Association of State Highway and Transportations Officials passed a resolution on Oct. 20 expressing its disappointment that transportation entities would not be allowed to use the proposed network. In the resolution, the AASHTO board calls for the FCC to “classify state departments of transportation as protectors of life, health or property” so DOTs could use the network, if built.
Copps applauded the commission's attempt to provide potential bidders with greater detail regarding the business model for operators, including a maximum base rate of $48.50 per month per public-safety user. However, the level of service expected for this rate still would leave a potential bidder with uncertainty as it seeks financing in very tight capital markets, he said.
“Finding money in the hallowed canyons of Wall Street — or anywhere else — to get this network built makes Indiana Jones' searchings look like child's play,” Copps said. “Lack of certainty on top of a lack of funding will not a public-safety network make.”