Asking America to fund first-responder network — what a concept
Yesterday, the FCC released its national broadband plan, which includes the controversial broadband wireless network for first responders. There are some aspects of the plan that I find troubling, starting with the decision to auction the commercial spectrum in the 700 MHz band — the so-called D block, which failed to attract a qualifying bid two years ago — rather than reallocating the airwaves to public safety, which desperately needs more spectrum.
I don’t believe that the 10 MHz D Block spectrum will be enough to elevate the likes of T-Mobile or Sprint Nextel enough to allow either to compete on the same level with the two behemoths — Verizon and AT&T — that dominate the commercial wireless landscape. Ostensibly, this is one of the reasons why some in Congress still want the D Block auctioned. Another is that the auction would put, theoretically, another sizeable chunk of money into the U.S. Treasury.
However, when you’re a nation facing a several-trillion-dollar deficit, the D Block proceeds — assuming that a successful auction ensues this time around, no sure thing — will amount to the proverbial “drop in the bucket.” I believe the better long-term play would have been to cede the airwaves to public safety.
Another aspect of the plan that troubles me is how the commercial and first-responder airwaves would be utilized. From the beginning, a shared network operated under the auspices of a public/private partnership was envisioned for this network. There was plenty of concern over how that ultimately would work, since such an endeavor would be unprecedented. Now that vision has changed, and this change has spawned one big concern.
The commission plans to let the commercial D Block winner operate its network independently, but is insisting that public safety be allowed to roam onto the network and to receive priority access when needed, both of which are essential. As usual, the devil will be in the details, so it is imperative that public safety ensure that any roaming and priority-access agreements it enters into with the commercial entity be both ironclad and watertight. It’s equally imperative that the FCC demonstrate the fortitude to enforce compliance — something that has not been the commission’s strong suit in recent years.
But wireless users roam onto independent networks every day and the call-set-up speeds of LTE reportedly are so fast — we’re talking milliseconds — that this anticipated arrangement shouldn’t cause first responders any significant problems.
However, a potentially vexing problem looms. Should the two networks indeed operate independently, some speculate that a guard band would be needed — and, should that be the case, it will need to be taken from public safety’s spectrum. Some experts believe the result would be slower data speeds for public safety, which could preclude certain high-bandwidth applications from being used by first responders and diminish any hopes that mission-critical voice one day would ride over this network.
Of course, giving first responders access to high-bandwidth applications that could save their lives — or the lives of those they are serving — is the whole point of the nationwide broadband network. Any action that would diminish the potential effectiveness of this vital network should be abandoned. If the FCC decides to do the opposite by carving the guard band out of public safety’s airwaves, it will be further evidence that it really isn’t listening to the sector, which has shouted long and loud about its need for MORE spectrum, not less.
There is one aspect of the national broadband plan I absolutely love, however. It calls for Congress to establish a funding mechanism for the network that will involve some sort of fee to be imposed on America’s broadband users. You might recall that I have written several times, since Morgan O’Brien first floated the idea for this network at IWCE four years ago, that Congress should reinstate the telephone excise tax and charge the nation’s 250 million wireless subscribers a monthly fee to pay for this network.
O’Brien suggested that this network would cost in the neighborhood of $20 billion, which would cost each wireless subscriber roughly 83 cents per month over a 20-year amortization cycle. I’m not a financial guy, so I freely admit that I haven’t factored in the cost of this money; I’m just trying to illustrate that in a nation whose citizens have no trouble forking out $5 for a cup of coffee on a daily basis, this network is within our collective reach.
In its national broadband plan, the FCC has asked Congress, through a broadband-user fee, to pony up $6.5 billion to build out a network that will cover 99% of the population. The commission also believes that the network’s operating costs will come to $1.3 billion annually by the 10th year of operation.
I think the commission is a little light in its estimates — I’d be willing to bet my house that the actual costs will be double what the FCC currently is estimating, based solely on the law of unforeseen consequences. And, if I were in charge, I’d still amortize the buildout and operating costs over the nation’s 250 million wireless subscribers, which would lighten the load considerably. After all, the first responder aspect of this initiative will benefit all Americans, not just broadband users.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the FCC is correct in its estimates, and let’s assume that the commission moves forward with its current plan. There were roughly 70 million broadband users in the United States at the end of last year. Let’s amortize the $6.5 billion sought by the FCC across those users, over 120 months — the tab comes to 78 cents per month, per user. Now, let’s divvy up the $1.3 billion in annual operating costs over those same users. That would add $1.54 to what each user would pay per month. We’re still talking about less than what most Americans spend every day on coffee and soda pop.
The wonders of caffeine and high-fructose corn syrup aside, I believe Americans will get far greater benefit from this network, regardless of what it costs. I am certain that it will be worth the expenditure, as the nation’s first responders who risk their lives for us on a daily basis deserve nothing less. I am equally certain — and have been from the beginning — that it is entirely appropriate to ask Americans to pay for this network. After all, it is they who will benefit from it the most.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.