AT&T position helps public safety, but more is needed
Late last week, AT&T formally expressed its support for a proposal calling for Congress to reallocate the 10 MHz D Block — currently earmarked for commercial auction — to public safety, which would give first responders 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum to leverage for a nationwide broadband network.
In an FCC filing, AT&T said reallocating the D Block to public safety was critical, because “anything less than a full 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum simply will not be cost effective” for public safety to deploy and implement the 4G applications it needs. The filing also notes that the D Block represents the last practical opportunity for public safety to get 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum below 2.5 GHz.
The position is not surprising, as it reflects previous statements from officials representing AT&T, Verizon and most first-responder organizations.
There was a time under the previous administration when having the top two U.S. telecom carriers and public safety on the same side of communications issue would almost guarantee its passage in Washington. However, that may not be the case today.
Many of the Democratic leaders who now control Congress — the entity that ultimately will decide whether the D Block is auctioned — were some of the most outspoken critics at the outcome of last year’s 700 MHz auction, noting that AT&T and Verizon own most of the prime airwaves in the spectrum band. These elected officials made clear their desire for at least one nationwide competitor to these giant players at 700 MHz.
Indeed, while the AT&T filing states that dedicating the D Block to first responders is “simply the right thing to do for the public-safety community,” some critics believe it is a position of commercial convenience. They believe AT&T and Verizon are taking the pro-public-safety stance because it effectively would close the door to further commercial competition in the band while arguably steering more potential public-safety customers in their direction, especially with the sector’s growing support of LTE as a broadband wireless standard.
With this in mind, a crucial aspect of the latest filing is that AT&T “supports public safety’s proposal” to allocate the D Block. That’s important, because there is a good chance that lawmakers would oppose the notion if it is perceived as a commercial ploy by the nation’s two wireless giants. However, if the idea is perceived as a public-safety initiative, it has a chance as federal officials weigh the benefits of greater commercial competition vs. public safety/homeland security.
In other words, if public safety wants the D Block spectrum, the key is for the first-responder community to rally behind this position and take clear ownership of it to ensure that a possibly negative commercial perception of the proposal is not the focus of decision-makers on Capitol Hill.