PSST role needs to be settled quickly
By FCC standards, the commission’s pace for acting on the public-private partnership proposal to build a shared wireless broadband network for public safety in the 700 MHz band has been lightning-quick compare to its usual glacial-like work rate.
Last year, in less than eight months, the commission took a proposal advocated by Cyren Call Communications and transformed it from a dead legislative idea into the cornerstone for auction rules governing the 10 MHz of commercial D Block spectrum.
Of course, this part of the auction failed to attract a bidder, and the FCC again embarked on an aggressive schedule to adopt new D Block rules and reauction the airwaves—adopt draft rules in late September, receive comments on the proposal into November and release rules by the end of the year. Logistically challenging, political realities seem to have made the schedule impossible to meet, as outgoing FCC Chairman Kevin Martin recently acknowledged.
As a result, the fate of the D Block apparently will be decided by a new FCC, and that likely means the matter will be delayed for some time, as justifiable delays are a natural symptom of a transition period that sees the commission reconstituted and employees in the agency shuffled to new posts. It’s hard to imagine that the FCC will be in position to tackle issues as complex as the D Block until May or June.
In general, a delay could prove to be positive. To date, the D Block has been considered in a rushed manner, so having some time to consider the various options out there could be helpful—this year, we should learn a lot more about the realities of 4G deployments, technically and economically. Certainly it appears that both the commercial and public-safety industries need time to develop an internal consensus, much less points of agreement between the two sides.
Delay could allow other parts of the government to possibly lend a hand. Congress certainly didn’t seem to like the FCC’s approach to handling the D Block, maybe its membership would like to offer its own ideas—or pass a law that would enable the request-for-proposal concept advocated by Verizon and AT&T to become a reality. Meanwhile, a wireless broadband network for public safety would seem like something that would fit nicely into the new administration’s $44 billion broadband infrastructure program.
The possibilities are endless, and the government should take its time to get the D Block strategy “right.”
But two areas that need to be addressed in the short term are 700 MHz narrowband relocation and the role of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), the licensee for public safety’s broadband spectrum in the band.
While there have been many arguments about the proper use of the spectrum, no one seems to question the FCC’s decision last year to change the band plan at 700 MHz. As we have stated in this space before, none of the broadband strategies will work until the narrowband systems are operating on their new frequencies, so getting the money to fund the relocation (government officials seem to avoid the word “rebanding,” even though that’s what we’re talking about) needs to be a priority. Congress, are you listening?
As for the PSST, the feds need to determine whether a nationwide licensee representing public safety is needed, and whether the PSST is the organization best suited for that role. If not, the license should be taken from the PSST quickly, to minimize confusion and wasted time, money and effort.
If the PSST is deemed appropriate to represent public safety, Congress needs to provide a viable funding mechanism that will allow the PSST—or another entity, if that’s the choice—to be an independent, competent representative of public safety.
For more than a year, I’ve heard critics of the PSST—inside and outside public safety—complain about the organization’s lack of outreach and its acceptance of millions of dollars in loans from its advisor, Cyren Call.
There certainly is legitimacy in these complaints, but the fact is that the PSST has not had many options. Outreach costs money, and the PSST doesn’t have any way to generate revenue to pay expenses—the organization’s only asset is an FCC license it cannot use on its own. At a time when a multibillion-dollar industry giant like Motorola has seen its credit rating downgraded to “junk,” it’s not surprising that investors aren’t exactly lining up to lend money to an entity with no collateral and an uncertain future.
With this in mind, the PSST arguably is lucky to secure the seven-figure loans it has received to date from Cyren Call, which has accepted a real risk that it may never be repaid. The amount of money is not enough for the PSST do conduct all the outreach and research it should as the representative. Public-safety entities have a lot of assets—most notably, tower sites and backhaul—that a commercial partner would like to leverage, but such possibilities need to be identified and inventoried prior to negotiations with a commercial partner.
Meanwhile, under the structure of the current proposal, the public-safety representative needs to be financially solid when negotiating with a commercial partner, which almost certainly will have team of well-paid negotiators on its side. What public safety does not need is to be represented by cash-strapped organization advised by an entity that is perceived as desperate to make a deal, because failure to do so mean that both its multimillion-dollar loans and its hope for an ongoing contract are lost.
Unfortunately, without changes, that’s exactly the negotiating scenario the PSST faces in approximately a year, if the D Block is reauctioned and a winning bidder emerges.
Every elected official talks about the importance of public security and their commitment to ensure that the populace is safe. No one has questioned the need for an interoperable broadband network. If the federal government is willing to pay for such a network, the least it should ensure that the public-safety representative in a public-private venture is financially sound enough to be in position to say, “No,” if a deal that is not in the interest of public safety is put on the table.
In short, if the PSST is to be public safety’s representative in this important endeavor, the government needs to make sure that it is well funded. That’s the least that public safety deserves.
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