Note to Feds: Relocate 700 MHz narrowband now
During this past week, considerable attention has been focused on the FCC proposal to auction the 700 MHz D Block to a commercial entity and ask Congress for $12 billion to $16 billion to fund a wireless broadband network nationwide for first responders on spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). Such attention to the broadband side of things is absolutely warranted, as an effective, dedicated LTE network for public safety could transform emergency-response communications in this country.
FCC officials have outlined a deployment plan that would make the much-debated broadband network about as quickly as humanly possible, in concert with the LTE network rollouts made by commercial carriers, which are expected to begin late this year. Whether the plan is technically, politically and economically feasible promises to be the subject of many more columns in the future, but virtually everyone agrees the proposed FCC timeline is aggressive.
And the schedule needs to be aggressive, as agency officials estimate the cost of the public-safety network will double if the first-responder network cannot be deployed in conjunction with the commercial networks. The plan is to roll out a public-safety LTE network as carriers deploy their 4G systems, so responders can begin leveraging broadband technology as quickly as possible.
But there is a potential snag in this fast track that has yet to be mentioned publicly: there are incumbent 700 MHz public-safety narrowband systems that need to be cleared from these frequencies, so the airwaves can be used for broadband.
These narrowband systems were established under the old FCC band plan that did not even contemplate broadband uses for public safety at 700 MHz. When the FCC realigned the spectrum almost three years ago to allow for broadband, the idea was that the winner of the 2008 D Block auction would pay to relocate the narrowband users — an exercise that was not expected to be very expensive, because there were relatively few systems and users in place at the time.
Of course, there were no qualified D Block auction bids, meaning there has been no funding source to pay the costs associated with relocating the 700 MHz narrowband systems. Instead, these systems have continued to operate, with most adding significant numbers of users in the interim.
The previous commission told public-safety agencies that they would be responsible for relocation costs for items added to these 700 MHz narrowband systems after fall 2007. Such a stipulation made sense when a D Block winner was expected to be in place less than a year later, but the rule doesn’t make sense now, after these systems have grown during the past three years.
Moreover, the government needs these narrowband systems to be moved quickly, so there are no issues with the proposed public-safety broadband network buildout being deployed as carriers roll out their networks. This band needs to be cleared immediately, and cash-strapped local entities probably do not have the money in the budget — and in some cases, may not be in a position to include in even next year’s budget — to pay relocation costs.
Exactly how much relocating the 700 MHz narrowband systems will cost is unknown, but it’s certainly a lot more than it would have cost in 2007. One estimate a couple of years ago said it would cost more than $50 million, and there is little reason to believe that number would not have increased significantly in the interim.
Whatever the cost — even if it’s several hundred million dollars, which is doubtful — this relocation effort is something the federal government needs to pay in full, and the appropriations commitment needs to happen soon. All plans to bring broadband to first responders require this spectrum to be cleared, and the price is relatively small compared to the cost of the network or any of the bailouts that Congress has enacted during the past year. From a fiscal standpoint, it would be a shame if the cost to deploy a public-safety network in a geographic region is doubled because the spectrum was not cleared in time to work in concert with a carrier’s deployment.
But more important is time, which is critical in this situation. We don’t need complicated negotiations that accompanied 800 MHz rebanding or another unfunded mandate like narrowbanding below 512 MHz. We need this spectrum to be cleared quickly and without controversy, so the FCC has a chance to execute its plan to ensure first responders have access to broadband tools as quickly as possible.
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