Public-safety T-Band systems face uncertain future, although hopes for successful auction appear slim
BALTIMORE—Public-safety LMR licensees operating on T-Band spectrum continue to face uncertainty, even as a federally mandated deadline requiring the FCC to begin a process to auction these airwaves is just 18 months away, according to an FCC official.
Conducting a T-Band auction would be contrary to the recommendation of the General Accounting Office (GAO), which investigated the matter and determined that Congress consider changes to the law that would let public-safety agencies continue to operate radio systems on T-Band spectrum. But the FCC will be obligated to conduct an auction—even one that is “likely” to fail—if Congress does not take action, according to David Furth, deputy chief of the FCC’s public-safety and homeland-security bureau.
“GAO issued its report, which recommended that Congress re-examine the legislation or repeal it,” Furth said during an FCC session conducted at the APCO 2019 event. “We at the FCC, though, have to follow the law as it stands. As it stands now, Congress has not changed the law, so we have an obligation to meet the requirements of the law and to do it in a responsible way.
“We’re mindful of that [February 2021] deadline, and the commission will do what it has to do, unless Congress changes the law. I do not know whether Congress will change the law—whether they will follow the GAO’s recommendation—but that is where we stand.”
If the FCC does conduct a T-Band auction under the current law, Furth is not optimistic about the outcome.
“My take on that is, if we have to follow the law, we could come up with auction rules, we would run an auction, and the auction would fail,” Furth said after the APCO session. “The GAO’s point was that the auction isn’t going to raise enough money to pay for relocation.
“I don’t like to have failed auctions. It’s happened before, and I think that would be the most likely outcome.”
Under the 2012 law that established the First Authority and dedicated 700 MHz spectrum to the public-safety broadband initiative, public-safety T-Band systems in 11 of the largest markets are supposed to move to other frequencies, so the FCC can begin to auction the airwaves to commercial users in 2021. After the auction, T-Band systems are supposed to move their systems within two years, with the proceeds of the T-Band auction funding the migration efforts.
But many public-safety licensees that operate in the T-Band spectrum—TV channels 14-20—do not have available spectrum that can host their LMR system, if a move is required. The GAO report cited New York, Boston and Los Angeles as examples of this issue. Even if new airwaves could be found, there likely would be a need for additional base-station sites, which would increase the relocation costs.
“You have a rational proposal [for incumbent licensees],” Furth said. “You have to have a proposal that is presumably something other than ‘the New York Police Department has to shut down its radio system.’”
Furth said the possibility of high relocation costs—or that public-safety agencies might not have to move their systems—would dampen enthusiasm for a prospective auction.
“You could say, ‘People don’t have to move until there is relocation spectrum,’ which you know will never happen,” Furth said. “But what that also will do is immediately devalue the spectrum for anybody that was interested in bidding on it in the first place.
“If I’m bidding on New York, 6 MHz of spectrum in New York [via a theoretical T-Band auction]? Yeah, that would be great, if there was nobody on it. If you’re telling me that the NYPD gets to be on it basically until we find some other place for them to go—which might not happen until the 23rd Century—it’s pretty much worth zero.”
When the legislation was passed in 2012, some government and industry sources privately speculated that members of Congress were hoping that FirstNet would be a viable alternative for mission-critical voice communications in time to address the needs of T-Band licensees. AT&T has announced plans to unveil 3GPP-compliant mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) services to FirstNet users this year, but no MCPTT offering is available today in the U.S. As a result, there is no way to evaluate MCPTT performance, much less predict whether first-responder agencies would accept it as an LMR replacement.
There are numerous other issues associated with conducting an auction to meet the current statute, which ignores the plight of business-industrial users operating on T-Band spectrum.
For instance, even if all other factors were resolve, the basic logistics involved with relocating the large T-Band systems at this point would be difficult to meet the current statutory deadlines.
In addition, the spectrum market has changed dramatically, according to many industry sources. When the T-Band law was passed in 2012, the commercial wireless industry was focused on identifying spectrum below 3 GHz for cellular use, with spectrum below 1 GHz being highly valued, because the airwaves’ propagation characteristics maximize coverage footprint.
But the primary nationwide carriers—Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile—have acquired considerable spectrum below 1 GHz during the last 12 years. Instead, officials for these carriers have shifted their focus to acquiring wide swaths of mid-band (2 GHz to 6 GHz) and millimeter-wave (24 GHz and above) spectrum that is better suited to deliver high-speed 5G services via densely located cell sites.
Meanwhile, public-safety representatives are unsure exactly what outcome they want, other than the ability to let LMR systems continue to operate on T-Band spectrum.
Congress could extend the deadline for a T-Band auction, but that would leave T-Band licensee under the same cloud of uncertainty that exists today.
There has been a push to have Congress repeal the T-Band legislation entirely, removing the uncertainty for licensees. However, the FCC exempted T-Band systems from the 2013 narrowbanding mandate, under the assumption that the systems soon would be relocated. If the relocation is repealed, local governments with T-Band systems could be required to use local funds to pay a hefty price—more than $100 million for New York City, according to original estimates—to meet a potential narrowbanding mandate.
In addition, some Beltway sources have indicated that federal lawmakers would ask public safety to give up other spectrum—for instance, some or all of the 50 MHz of airwaves in the 4.9 GHz band designated for public-safety use—in exchange for repealing the requirement to vacate T-Band spectrum.
Other public-safety advocates have said that FCC should conduct the auction as the current law mandates. If the auction fails, the licensees would be able to continue to operate their T-Band systems with certainty—without having to lose other spectrum—albeit with the potential need to fund a narrowbanding initiative. If the auction success and a relocation path is identified, the T-Band incumbents presumably would get new systems funded by the auction winner, according to proponents of this alternative.