FCC to delay D Block decision
Multiple sources indicate that the much-anticipated rules for the 700 MHz D Block re-auction will not be considered during the FCC’s regular meeting on Dec. 18, causing many to question whether this commission will be able to address the matter before being reconstituted as part of a new presidential administration.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is supposed to conduct a press conference this week revealing the items being considered for the Dec. 18 meeting, and rules for the D Block “is not expected” to be included on the list, according to an FCC official.
Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST)—licensee of public safety’s 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band that would be combined with the adjacent D Block in a shared wireless broadband network—said his organization was told last week that the D Block would not be on the FCC’s December agenda.
“We know that,” McEwen said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “What we haven’t been told is why [the item is not on the agenda].”
McEwen said it would be “foolish to speculate” on the reasons why the D Block item was not included on the agenda.
On Sept. 25, the FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking addressing the D Block, but a subsequent comment period revealed increasing divisiveness within the public-safety and commercial camps that eventually would need to reach an agreement to make the public-private partnership model work.
Theoretically, the FCC could approve the item on circulation, but this approach typically is not used when dealing with high-profile issues, which are typically reserved for deliberation in the commission’s open meetings.
Should a D Block ruling not be included on the FCC’s December agenda, it is a virtual certainty that Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate would not vote on the matter. Barring unexpected action by Congress this month, Tate’s FCC term will expire before the FCC’s meeting in January. During that meeting, the commission is expected to be divided evenly at 2-2 between Republicans and Democrats, although the commission previously has not taken any actions regarding the D Block without bipartisan consensus.
Mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said his industry sources question whether the D Block item will be addressed even in January.
“I think it gets put off until the new administration,” Seybold said during an interview with Urgent Communications.
If that proves to be the case, the future of the D Block would be determined with a Democrat appointed by President-elect Barack Obama serving as FCC chairman. With Martin expected to step down from the commission and the possibility of other commissioners possibly changing, the D Block matter could be delayed further as a new FCC is in transition.
“I hate to delay first responders again, but I’d like them to take some time and do something better [than the current FCC proposal],” Seybold said.
During the comment period that closed last month on the D Block proposal, public-safety representatives expressed concern about relaxed network requirements, and several big cities—New York, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, to name a few—claimed they would not subscribe to a service under the proposed model.
The relaxed network requirements in the FCC proposal were designed to help attract commercial operators to make qualifying bids on the D Block—something that did not happen during the original 700 MHz auction earlier this year—but the comments from commercial entities were lukewarm, at best.
Many carriers noted that the tight capital markets would make it difficult for them to borrow the money needed to build a 4G broadband network in the near term. Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility—the two largest U.S. wireless carriers and owners of most 700 MHz spectrum sold during the auction this year—have both proposed that the D Block spectrum be given to local public-safety organizations, which would be able to negotiate deals with commercial carriers.
But the Verizon-AT&T proposal almost certainly would require an act of Congress, because current law mandates that the FCC auction the D Block spectrum. Most Beltway sources believe it would take at least several months for Congress to pass such a law, and many question whether lawmakers would give spectrum to public safety when it could be auctioned to help offset the significant budget deficit facing the government.
While some public-safety sources believe a D Block delay could provide an opportunity to build consensus on the matter, a delay could have negative impacts in two notable areas.
For the PSST, funding is a concern. With no revenue source, the organization has been financed with a loan from its advisor, Cyren Call Communications—an arrangement that has led to significant criticism from Congress. The PSST board has approved a contract with Cyren Call for another year of financing, but the deal is contingent on getting FCC approval, McEwen said. To date, the FCC has not provided any guidance on the matter, he said.
McEwen declined to speculate on what the PSST would do if the Cyren Call financing deal is not approved by the FCC, noting that the PSST board would have to determine a course of action. However, McEwen acknowledged the possibility that the PSST might have to “cut Cyren Call loose” if some sort of financing arrangement cannot be found.
Meanwhile, public-safety agencies wanting to operate narrowband systems at 700 MHz could be in limbo until the D Block matter is resolved. FCC proposals have called for the 47 agencies already operating narrowband networks at 700 MHz to be relocated to other spectrum in the band, with the cost of the relocation being paid by the D Block winner. With no D Block winner, there is no funding source to pay for the relocation, which is needed to clear public safety’s spectrum for broadband uses.
“This is absolutely horrific for public safety,” McEwen said. “For those 47 agencies, this is terrible—they’ve been waiting for more than a year and nothing’s been decided … They’re stuck.”