Gurss: Congress may have to revisit T-Band mandate
MINNEAPOLIS — The mandate delivered by Congress that public-safety users of T-Band spectrum (470-512 MHz) vacate the airwaves 11 years from now is so unworkable that public safety eventually could ask federal lawmakers to revisit it, according to Robert Gurss, regulatory counsel for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), who spoke on the topic yesterday during APCO's annual conference.
The requirement is contained in the federal legislation enacted earlier this year that paved the way for public safety's national broadband network, but it wasn't thought out well enough, Gurss said.
"This was done with limited knowledge, to say the least, by members of Congress," he said.
Gurss said he believes some members of Congress were under the mistaken impression that vacating the T-Band wouldn't be an issue for the public-safety agencies currently using it, because they will be moving to the nationwide broadband network. There's one huge problem with that thinking, according to Gurss.
"I don't think they understood that the national public-safety broadband network is not going to be offering mission-critical voice for a long time," he said.
There are myriad other problems with the requirement, according to Gurss. One is that the T-Band auction that will occur 9 years from now might not generate enough money to pay for all of the migrations that need to occur.
"How much money this auction will raise is a mystery, because it's 9 years away, and because auctions always are a mystery," Gurss said. "We don't know what the telecom market is going to look like then."
The timetable is another issue, because T-Band users are required to vacate the band just two years after the spectrum is auctioned, Gurss said.
"That doesn't give you much time," he said. "Because many of these systems are very big, you're going to need more than two years — and you're not going to do anything until you know the money is going to be there."
In addition, there are questions concerning how the money would be distributed, Gurss said.
"That's going to be a big issue," he said. "Are we going to have a central body, sort of like a [transition administrator] that deals with this? Is there going to be a grant program? All of that would have to be worked out at some point."
Perhaps the biggest problem is that there really is no place to put the T-Band licensees, because there is no spectrum to be found and the systems are so big, in many cases, said Farokh Latif, director of APCO's spectrum management division. According to Latif, both the VHF and UHF bands are heavily encumbered.
"We have a number of our frequency advisors here in the room who can tell you what a difficult task it is in many parts of the country — especially in metropolitan areas — to find any channels, especially in VHF," Latik said. "Even if we could find channels, it wouldn't be the 20-30 channels that they need — it probably would be one or two frequencies, so good luck with that."
While public safety will have to wait for the next Congress — at a minimum — to revisit the T-Band requirement, there is one compelling argument the sector could make that could convince lawmakers to reconsider, Gurss said.
"The reason I think this has some potential is that this is a revenue-neutral provision of an otherwise heavy revenue-based bill," he said. "All of the revenue from this auction that's supposed to take place is supposed to go back to public safety — it doesn't go to the [U.S] Treasury. So, we can legitimately go back to Congress and say, 'Look, we're not taking money out of the Treasury."
Gurss added that the FCC is expected to release a notice of inquiry that will seek to answer some of these questions and urged affected agencies to comment.
"The commission certainly isn't going to go back to the Hill and say, 'Change this,' but they at least need to start thinking about where they're going to put all of these [licensees],"he said. "Every T-Band licensee needs to weigh in on this — not just to say that this is terrible but to explain the impact."
Currently, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) is conducting a T-Band survey, and plans to provide a report to the FCC by the end of the year. Gurss urged affected licensees to take the survey.
"It will be useful for potential advocacy efforts to change the law and, ideally, reverse it … or at least to come up with provisions that will make it less painful for the licensees," he said.
Gurss offered one last piece of advice to T-Band licensees.
"Don't yell at the FCC about this — there's no one at the commission that wanted to do this," he said. "They're kind of caught in the middle, too."