Congress repeals T-Band auction as part of massive funding bill with COVID-19 relief
Public-safety and business-industrial licensees with LMR systems on T-Band spectrum would be able to continue operating those networks, thanks to a scheduled auction of the airwaves being repealed as part of the massive federal funding legislation passed yesterday by Congress.
This reported $1.4 trillion funding measure, along with a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package, has been sent to President Donald Trump to sign into law. If Trump decides to veto the legislation, both the House and Senate appear to have the votes necessary to override a veto.
Under the language in the “Telecommunications and Consumer Protection” section of the “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021,” the FCC no longer would be required to begin auctioning T-Band frequencies—spectrum from 470 MHz to 512 MHz, with different swaths available in various parts of the U.S.—in February, as previously stipulated in the 2012 law that established the FirstNet system.
“I welcome Congress both requiring the FCC to begin auctioning the 3.45-3.55 GHz band by the end of 2021 and repealing the mandate to auction the T-band,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a prepared statement. “These provisions will ensure that the Commission and the federal government as a whole stay on track in quickly making the 3.45 GHz band available for 5G and that the FCC does not have to waste resources on a T-band auction that was bound to fail.”
Indeed, most wireless-industry analysts have indicated that an auction of T-Band spectrum would not generate enough revenue from winning bids to relocate T-Band incumbents, even if different airwaves was available to them. Making matters worse is the fact that there is no adequate spectrum to relocate public-safety T-Band systems in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia, according to a June 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Many key policy items before the FCC result in a split among commissioners along partisan lines, but the T-Band issue is not one of them. Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has been outspoken in agreeing with Pai—a Republican—that a T-Band auction would not be successful.
Yesterday, Rosenworcel issued a statement applauding the fact that the proposed funding package “protects key airwaves used by first responders.”
Public-safety representatives have opposed the auction of the T-Band spectrum from the day Congress passed the 2012 law, which is part of the same the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act that established the FirstNet Authority and allocated 20 MHz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum to the organization. T-Band airwaves are former TV broadcast airwaves used by more than 900 public-safety agencies to support LMR networks in 11 of the largest U.S. metropolitan markets.
With this in mind, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) issued a statement supporting Congress approving language that would repeal the law mandating that the FCC conduct a T-Band auction.
“This action finally removes the cloud of uncertainty facing public safety licensees who have T-Band systems,” according to the NPSTC statement. “Prior to this action, licensees did not know whether to enhance their T-Band systems or prepare to replace them.
“Hundreds of licensees in the top eleven markets in this country were affected with the possibility of losing critical communications capacity. The decision to allow public safety to retain the T-Band was not only the right thing to do, it will assure the continued safety of millions of citizens by retaining necessary communications links for first responders.”
This sentiment was echoed by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).
“APCO is very pleased that the 2021 Appropriations Act includes repeal of the T-band provision that would have otherwise required public safety to relinquish use of this important spectrum for conducting mission-critical communications, as well as legislation to combat 911 fee diversion,” APCO Executive Director and CEO Derek Poarch said in a statement provided to IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “This outcome is the result of years of lobbying efforts by APCO and other public-safety groups.”
Wireless consultant Andrew Seybold, who helped public-safety officials advocate for the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority a decade ago, said he was glad to see Congress pass legislation repealing the T-Band auction, which otherwise was due to begin in two months.
“It’s about time, and it’s just in the nick of time,” Seybold said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “So many of us … have worked so hard for this, ever since it was included in the FirstNet bill. This is kind of the culmination of everything we’ve done to try to get it back.”
One of the geographic location potentially impacted most by the longstanding mandate to auction the T-Band spectrum has been the Los Angeles area. As a result of the requirement, the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) designed a hybrid LMR system.
LA-RICS Executive Director Scott Edson said that a law repealing the T-Band auction mandate should “bring much-needed capacity to the Los Angeles region.”
“This will greatly benefit the citizens that we serve,” Edson said in a text communication with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We are very appreciative to Congress for supporting public safety in this way.”
As important as T-Band spectrum is to public-safety operations, first-responder agencies are not the only users of the airwaves. The 2012 law mandating the T-Band auction only mentioned public-safety licensees of the T-Band spectrum, but the FCC’s decision to freeze license applications in the band also impacted numerous non-public-safety entities with LMR networks.
The Government Wireless Technology & Communication Association (GWTCA) expressed support for Congress repealing the T-Band auction mandate.
“GWTCA is delighted that Congress has now agreed with what all of us (and the FCC) has always know, which is that the T-Band mandate was ill-advised and unworkable since it was first passed,” according to the GWTCA statement. “We look forward to working with the FCC to ensure a more harmonious usage of the band between land mobile and broadcasters in the future.
This sentiment was echoed by the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA), which serves as the spectrum coordinator for many business-industrial enterprises that have had their T-Band LMR networks drastically limited for almost nine year, even though those systems are not mentioned in the 2012 law.
EWA President and CEO Mark Crosby applauded federal lawmakers’ action to repeal the T-Band auction mandate but noted that how the FCC implements the new law is critical to existing licensees using the frequencies.
“I think this is great, and I’m happy for all of the incumbents, both public-safety and business enterprises,” Crosby said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “Now, we need to be careful—assuming Trump signs it—about how the FCC lifts the application freeze. We need to do it in a manner that’s fair and equitable to all parties.
“The incumbents have not been able to modify their systems for nine years. In my opinion—and this is yet to be decided—I think incumbents should have the first opportunity to modify their systems, before new applicants are allowed in. You’ve got to be careful how the freeze is lifted.”