NENA D-Block position is nice, but clock is ticking
A couple of weeks ago, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) announced it would support efforts to convince Congress to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to public safety, something other public-safety organizations have been seeking for months.
NENA placed one condition on its support, which is that it would only support the reallocation of the D Block to public safety — providing public safety with a 20 MHz spectral platform for a nationwide broadband network, when combined with the spectrum currently licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — if there is a viable funding model for such a network. Frankly, the spectrum and the funding issues need to be addressed together, if this network is to reach fruition.
The good news is that NENA’s announcement means the public-safety community is all on the same page. No longer can federal officials hide behind a perception that public-safety is somehow divided as a reason for not addressing the D Block/public-safety broadband network matter. This should greatly clarify the first-responder community’s lobbying efforts in the Beltway.
The bad news is that such lobbying efforts do not have the luxury of time on their side. Current law mandates that the FCC submit a national broadband plan to Congress by Feb. 17. In addition, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has told Congress that he intends to unveil a new plan for the D Block by the same date, which is just 11 weeks away.
Unless it receives some new direction from Congress, the FCC’s D Block choices are rather limited — specifically, the spectrum is required by law to be auctioned to commercial operators. The previous FCC pursued the idea of auctioning the spectrum to a commercial operator under conditions designed to forge a public-private partnership with the PSST to build and maintain a public-safety broadband network. That auction failed infamously and was the subject of considerable criticism by members of Congress that remain in office today.
Today, the credit markets are even more skittish than they were when the first D Block auction was conducted two years ago, so it is difficult to imagine that the FCC would pursue a similar strategy, because even willing commercial partners may be hard-pressed to get the financing necessary to embark on an expensive venture with an obviously unproven business model.
With this in mind, what public safety needs is for Congress to take action. Ideally, this would come in the form of a new law that reallocates the D Block and provides adequate funding sources to build and maintain the network. Getting something like this done in a year would be a Herculean task; getting it done in 11 weeks is next to impossible logistically, especially given the facts that Congress will have a holiday recess, is dealing with other issues like health-care reform at the moment, and no one seems to know how much such a network would cost.
More logistically practical is the possibility of getting some powerful bipartisan members of Congress to write a letter to the FCC with some direction, similar to the one written a year ago asking the lame-duck commission not to take action on any matters other than those associated with the digital television transition.
Of course, whether that strategy is politically practical is another story. After all, it seems like every sector wants more spectrum, not just public safety, so there are a lot of people vying for federal lawmakers’ attention on this front. In other words, public safety is facing a steep uphill climb to make its D Block vision a reality, but at least all the major organizations are walking on the same path.