It’s time to deal with the political realities of FCC 700 MHz proposal
A week after the FCC released the national broadband plan, there still is a lot of buzz in the public-safety communications sector about the agency’s plan for a nationwide, wireless broadband network for first responders in the 700 MHz band.
Reactions have been remarkably consistent on the various aspects of the plan. Virtually everyone likes the recommendation calling for Congress to provide $6.5 billion in grant funds for the buildout of the public-safety network and an ongoing fee charged to broadband users to generate the $6 billion to $10 billion needed to pay for the operating costs for the next decade. Most agree that building out the network on a parallel path with commercial deployment makes sense.
Public-safety officials have expressed concerns about details surrounding roaming, priority access, commercial-network hardening, control issues and network-sharing arrangements with potential commercial-carrier partners. Both public safety and commercial carriers have expressed a desire for more information regarding the business relationship they would have in a partnership environment. While they want additional clarity, first responders wouldn’t consider any of these items a “deal-breaker.”
By far, the biggest negative reaction to the plan is that the FCC recommended the 10 MHz D Block spectrum be auctioned to commercial operators, as is mandated by current law. Public safety wants Congress to reallocate the spectrum for first-responder use as emergency broadband communications are expected to increase dramatically during the next several years.
“At the end of the day, they can give us all the money in the world,” Charles Dowd, deputy chief for the New York Police Department, said during his keynote speech at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) two weeks ago. “But, if we don’t have enough spectrum, we can’t do our job.”
An FCC recommendation supporting this position would have helped public safety’s cause on Capitol Hill. Of course, that didn’t happen. And most Beltway sources believe there is virtually no chance federal lawmakers would reallocate the D Block without an FCC recommendation.
After all, changing existing law is tough under the best circumstances. Changing existing law in a manner would oppose the recommendation of the FCC — the federal government’s expert agency on spectrum matters — and the lobbying efforts of many commercial carriers is an even more daunting uphill battle.
We’ve written numerous times in this space that reallocating the D Block to public safety would be ideal, because it would ensure that first responders have the capacity they need during most emergencies, would limit the need for public safety to roam onto commercial networks and allow greater flexibility to partner with other government/critical-infrastructure organizations to promote greater interoperability and potential provide new sources of revenue to help offset network costs.
But now that it appears D Block reallocation will not happen, public safety is faced with a critical question: Does it want to continue pursuing the battle for the D Block on Capitol Hill, or does it want to endorse the FCC proposal, which calls for Congress to help fund the network?
For most in public safety, the answer is they want both the D Block and the funding. But the concern voice by many Beltway sources is that public safety continuing to push for the D Block will be construed as lack of support — if not outright opposition — to the FCC plan. That perceived lack of support could have a significant negative impact on the viability of the FCC plan.
That sentiment is based on the fact that, without the recommended funding, virtually everyone agrees the FCC plan will fail. And without public safety’s support, everyone agrees that funding legislation will go nowhere. Finding $6.5 billion for a public-safety network will be tough amid concerns about government overspending as November election approach. If public safety is unsure it wants the network as proposed by the FCC, why would lawmakers even bother considering it?
Of course, even with public safety’s support, the funding aspect of the FCC plan faces considerable challenges. From a legislative standpoint, clear momentum for funding probably needs to be in place before fall, when federal lawmakers will hit the re-election campaign trail.
Timing also is important on the rollout side. The FCC plan is based on the notion of building out the network in conjunction with commercial 4G rollouts, which will begin in earnest late this year. Missing this window of opportunity would double the cost of deploying the public-safety network, according to FCC officials. Of course, that would make it at least twice as difficult to secure the needed funding.
In other words, time is short, and the clock is ticking. Fast action is needed on several fronts.
Public safety must decide soon whether it wants to support the FCC plan or continue to wage a two-front war — on the D Block and funding — that most Beltway sources deem to be unwinnable.
The FCC must move quickly to get public safety’s support. Details about the aforementioned concerns regarding roaming, network hardening and business models need to resolved so first-responder organizations and potential carrier partners are comfortable with the plan. Oh, and let’s not forget that someone needs to ensure that a guard band between the D Block and the public-safety block is not needed; failure to do so could undermine the value of both the D Block and the public-safety broadband spectrum.
Finally, Congress needs to act within the necessary timetable. Funding legislation needs to be passed — and, most importantly, actually appropriated — before the end of the year, or it will be tough to build out the network as the FCC envisions, in conjunction with commercial 4G rollouts.
With this in mind, until the FCC provides its details and Congress allocates the recommended funding, the D Block auction should not be conducted. This will help ensure that federal policymakers act with the urgency needed, and it will make it easier for commercial operators to bid on the D Block. After all, the D Block likely would be much more valuable to commercial carriers if a potential public-safety partner has billions of dollars in federal support than if first responders have no promise for funding.
More important, what the FCC and Congress simply cannot allow to happen is for public safety to give up the D Block and fail to provide adequate funding sources for the buildout and maintenance of the proposed public-safety network. Such a scenario would be a travesty for the nation, particularly as we approach the nine-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
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