Consensus lacking as 700 MHz deadlines loom
Many ideas were advanced during the FCC comment period regarding the 700 MHz D Block proposal, but the oft-conflicting notions seemed to raise more questions than answers for the commission, which could make a decision on the matter this month.
After failing to attract a qualifying D Block bid earlier this year, the FCC released proposed rules that would make the 10 MHz of commercial spectrum — paired with 10 MHz of public-safety broadband spectrum in a shared network for first responders — more attractive to commercial bidders.
While most commenters agreed that the new proposal is more commercially viable, many carriers still question the economics, particularly when the capital markets are so tight. Meanwhile, public-safety commenters were outspoken in their opposition to the lowered network requirements in the proposal, including reduced coverage area, a slower buildout requirement and a smaller percentage of hardened sites.
Most outspoken were the cities of New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and San Jose, Calif., as well as the state of New York and Cook County, Ill., where Chicago is located. Representatives of these high-profile governing entities signed a letter to the FCC in which they declared the proposed D Block rules to be “unworkable.”
“We don’t think this network, given the new rules, is public-safety-grade, and we have no intention to use it,” said Charles Dowd, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department, during a session at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference last month.
Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), said IACP strongly opposed the stance taken by New York and other major cities to abandon the proposed nationwide network in favor of building their own.
“If we were to follow what New York City is advocating, smaller agencies would be ignored and abandoned,” McEwen said.
Instead, these entities believe spectrum should be given to local public-safety groups with the understanding that they would build networks to a national technical standard such as long-term evolution (LTE) to ensure interoperability, said Bill Schrier, chief technology officer for the city of Seattle. This strategy would ensure that the needs of local agencies would be met and potentially could reduce the cost of building out the network, he said.
“We’ve got about 50 radio sites managed by local jurisdictions, we’ve got an extensive fiber network, we’ve got microwave networks to connect these sites and we’ve got a lot of skilled folks,” Schrier said. “I would like to be able to take all of those assets, which are already owned by taxpayers, and go to carriers and say, ‘Hey, use these assets to reduce the cost — these assets are already built to public-safety grade — and use these assets to build the system for us.’”
But mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold expressed doubt that a commercial carrier would be willing to build a network under such circumstances, noting that carriers typically seek long-term leases for tower sites before investing, while governmental entities prefer short-term agreements.
Supporting the large-entity position are commercial wireless heavyweights AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless, both of which advocate a plan that would call for the FCC to grant local public-safety agencies the D Block, allowing each to pursue its own broadband buildout strategy.
Unlike AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless — carriers that won the bulk of 700 MHz spectrum auctioned earlier this year — commercial wireless providers without significant 700 MHz spectrum called for the frequencies to be auctioned again. Even Verizon Wireless acknowledged in its filing that the FCC should not award the D Block to public safety until it has received permission from Congress.
Waiting for Congress to act would mean an indefinite delay in resolving the issue, and “we don’t want to see it delayed anymore,” McEwen said. Seybold said he does not believe Congress would abandon the notion of auctioning the D Block to get money for the U.S. Treasury, particularly when the federal government is facing an ever-increasing deficit in a down economy.
However, even if the FCC releases new D Block rules this month, Seybold said he believes a new FCC — this time led by Democrats, as the result of Democrat Barak Obama’s election as president — will revisit the controversial matter.
A key problem for the PSST associated with delay is funding — the PSST does not have any revenue sources, even though it is incurring expenses. Charged with representing public safety in negotiating a network-sharing agreement with eventual D Block licensees and coordinating the narrowband relocation effort at 700 MHz, the PSST has spent the bulk of the $4 million loan secured by its adviser, Cyren Call Communication.
In a letter to the FCC, Cyren Call said it needs assurances that the PSST will be able to repay the first loan before it can secure additional funding for the organization. Without such assurances, Cyren Call said it would have to cease its fund-raising efforts and intimated that it might have to terminate its relationship with the PSST — something it would do “only with the greatest reluctance,” according to the filing.
Even a potential D Block bidder, U.S. Cellular, expressed concern about the PSST’s financial state. Meanwhile, public-safety representatives question whether an unfunded or underfunded PSST can represent the first-responder community adequately.
With so many issues surrounding the D Block in limbo, police chiefs from 35 major cities support a resolution that calls for a postponement of the re-auction of the 700 MHz D Block until a consensus is reached within the public-safety sector on how to best use the spectrum.
Also calling for a delay in the auction is MetroPCS, a regional commercial wireless carrier, albeit for different reasons. Given the global recession, securing financing for large-scale network buildouts in the current market is “difficult, if not impossible” for non-nationwide carriers, according to the carrier.
“Accordingly, even if the commission moves forward and adopts new rules for the D Block, in order to promote competition and diversity, the commission must wait to auction the spectrum until the market turmoil has abated,” MetroPCS said in its filing.