FCC’s Pai asks Congress to repeal law mandating auction of public-safety T-Band spectrum
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai last week took the initial step to conduct a mandated auction of T-Band spectrum to commercial users in February, but he simultaneously urged Congress to repeal the 2012 law requiring the bidding process for public-safety airwaves by describing the notion as “a bad idea.”
Pai announced last Friday that he circulated a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to fellow FCC commissioners that would begin to clear a path necessary for an auction of T-Band spectrum (470-512 MHz) to begin by Feb. 22, as required by the same 2012 law that created the FirstNet Authority.
While following the letter of the law, Pai made it clear that he was not happy about it, reiterating his call that Congress should repeal the T-Band auction requirement.
“An FCC auction of the T-band is a bad idea,” Pai said in a prepared statement. “But as of today, the law mandates that we do it. It’s unfortunate that Commission resources must be dedicated to laying the groundwork for an auction that will likely fail.
“This is especially true at a time when we are making every effort to keep Americans safe and connected, including allowing expanded temporary use of this very spectrum to help first responders save lives.”
Public-safety representatives have opposed the auction of the T-Band spectrum from the day Congress passed the 2012 law that created FirstNet. T-Band airwaves are used by more than 900 public-safety agencies to support LMR networks in 11 of the largest U.S. metropolitan markets: Boston, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco/Oakland, and Washington, D.C.
Normally, spectrum in such large markets would be extremely valuable in an FCC auction, but most wireless-industry analysts have expressed doubt whether an auction of public-safety T-Band spectrum would generate much interest from bidders, for a variety of reasons.
First, wireless carriers or other entities participating in an auction do not get access to the spectrum until it is vacated by incumbent users. But there likely is no adequate spectrum for relocating T-Band users in at least five markets—Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia—according to report released last June by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Technically, the 2012 law requires public-safety T-Band licensees to vacate the spectrum by February 2023. Even if there was spectrum available to relocate the public-safety agencies—and that often is not the case—the time it would take to relocate these LMR systems would take much longer, given government-procurement cycles and the mission-critical nature of these public-safety networks.
If bidders are uncertain when, or if, they will be able to use spectrum, they likely will submit only low bids–if they choose to bid at all—according to many wireless-industry analysts who doubt whether such bids would pay the relocation costs.
Second, the spectrum-demand landscape has changed dramatically since 2012. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile all have very healthy airwave portfolios below 1 GHz, and officials for these carriers recently have expressed more interest in vast amounts of mid-band and millimeter-wave spectrum.
The recent introduction of Dish as a nationwide carrier means there conceptually could be an new interested bidder in T-Band spectrum. However, the complications surrounding the T-Band airwaves—no clear, nationwide swath and blocks of spectrum that are much smaller than those licensed to competitors, as well as the incumbent issues—make a substantial Dish bid less likely.
When the T-Band mandate was passed by Congress in 2012, there was some speculation that public-safety agencies could migrate their mission-critical voice communications to a standardized push-to-talk service available on FirstNet, which is being built by AT&T.
On March 31, AT&T announced an offering for FirstNet PTT, a service that is designed to meet the 3GPP standard for mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) service. While an initial trial of FirstNet PTT demonstrated excellent on-network performance, FirstNet PTT is an offering that is less than two months old and unproven in the field. In addition, FirstNet PTT only works on a single Samsung device and currently is not interoperable with LMR networks.
Given all of the issues surrounding a T-Band auction, Pai said he believes Congress should repeal the law requiring the FCC to auction the spectrum.
“Fortunately, there is bipartisan legislation in Congress to repeal this mandate, including bills that couple repeal with 911-fee-diversion reform as reported out by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the U.S. Senate and the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the U.S. House of Representatives,” Pai said in a prepared statement.
“I hope legislation passes soon, so first responders who rely on this spectrum no longer need to worry about a potential loss of or significant disruption to their mission-critical radio systems. I remain committed to helping Congress in any way I can to ensure that such harms to public-safety operations do not come to pass.”
There is overwhelming consensus within the public-safety community that first responders should be allowed to continue LMR communications operating on T-Band spectrum, but there have been some debates about the details surrounding how this should happen.
Extending the deadline associated with the current law is problematic, because it leaves all T-Band licensees—not just public-safety entities, but enterprise users that are not addressed in the 2012—in a state of limbo and incapable of making significant improvements to their systems.
A more definitive action—a T-Band repeal by Congress or a failed auction, which would be very possible under existing conditions—would clarify that existing licensees could remain on the spectrum and improve their LMR systems. This would be great news for most T-Band licensees, but it could prove to have an expensive impact on some.
Congress passed the T-Band auction mandate in February 2012, about 10 months before the FCC’s narrowbanding mandate—mandating that LMR systems below 512 migrate from 25 kHz channels to 12.5 kHz channels—became effective. The FCC ruled that T-Band licensees would not have to adhere to the narrowbanding rules, because they presumably would be vacating the spectrum within a decade under the existing law.
One lingering question is: If T-Band licensees are allowed to remain on the spectrum, would the FCC require them to meet the narrowbanding mandate that was enforced throughout the rest of the country? For the New York Police Department, narrowbanding its system was going to cost at least $150 million at the time of the original deadline.
During the past 25 years, FCC spectrum auctions have generated more than $100 billion in revenue for the U.S. Treasury, with few failed auctions.
One notable exception occurred in 2008, when 10 MHz of 700 MHz airwaves failed to attract a qualifying bid from a carrier willing to work with the unfunded Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) to build a nationwide LTE network for public safety. That PSST airwaves swath later was paired with the adjacent 10 MHz D Block in the 2012 law to form the spectral foundation of FirstNet, the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN).