House Commerce Committee calls for repeal of T-Band auction
U.S. House Commerce Committee members unanimously approved legislation that would repeal a law mandating that the FCC auction public-safety T-Band spectrum, preparing the bill for consideration by the full House amid speculation that the matter could be part of an upcoming COVID-19 stimulus package.
House Commerce Committee members unanimously approved H.R. 451—the “Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2019”—without discussion during today’s virtual markup meeting, during which the committee approved 30 bills. With the votes, each piece of legislation can be considered by the entire U.S. House of Representatives.
Perhaps more importantly, the language to repeal the T-Band auction mandate is being considered for inclusion in a potential COVID-19 stimulus package that is expected to be the subject of negotiations that could begin next week, according to Beltway sources.
If enacted, H.R. 451 would reverse a requirement in a 2012 law—the same piece of legislation that established the FirstNet Authority—for the FCC to initiate an auction of T-Band spectrum used by public-safety agencies to support LMR communications systems in Feb. 2021. The T-Band encompasses 470-512 MHz spectrum within 11 major metropolitan areas, although the 6 MHz swaths used by public safety in each location are not contiguous nationwide—one of many reasons why most experts doubt that a successful auction is realistic.
T-Band spectrum also is used by many business-industrial entities—licensees that are not even mentioned in the 2012 law—that have been left in limbo for more than eight years.
In an attempt to comply with the T-Band mandate, the FCC recently released proposed rules that are designed to be an initial step toward auctioning the public-safety spectrum. Although the FCC has begun its legal duty to auction the spectrum, it is clear that the action was taken reluctantly.
“[Relocating public-safety T-Band systems is] a bad idea, any way you cut it,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a prepared statement. “For one thing, it would disrupt critical communications for first responders in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., during a nationwide public health emergency.
“For another, relocating the communications of these existing public-safety authorities would cost billions more than we can reasonably expect to recover in this auction. Finally, the lack of alternative public safety spectrum in many of the affected areas would leave a dangerous gap in emergency communications.”
Rosenworcel is a Democratic commissioner on a Republican-controlled FCC, but opposition to the T-Band auction is a bipartisan sentiment. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been outspoken in his belief that a T-Band auction will not work and has urged Congress to repeal the requirement.
“An FCC auction of the T-band is a bad idea,” Pai said in a prepared statement in May. “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.”
Not only are FCC commissioners against the idea of auctioning public-safety T-Band airwaves, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report last June that there is no adequate spectrum to relocate LMR systems in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia.
As a result, it is uncertain when a winning bidder in a T-Band auction would actually be able to access the spectrum—a condition that likely would depress auction prices. In addition, existing commercial wireless carriers have expressed a greater desire to invest in vast swaths of mid-band and millimeter-wave spectrum, instead of bolstering their spectrum portfolios below 1 GHz, although some have noted that the introduction of Dish as a nationwide carrier potentially could alter that dynamic.
Such factors are cited by wireless analysts as reasons they doubt that a T-Band auction would generate the “roughly $6 billion” in bids that Rosenworcel said is necessary to fund a relocation of the public-safety LMR system, if new spectrum is available at all.
Public-safety representatives have opposed the auction of the T-Band spectrum from the day Congress passed the 2012 law. 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.
While 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 the best scenarios for public-safety agencies.
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—money that would come from local taxpayers, if it was funded as most narrowbanding initiatives were.