D block proves to be tough sell

Congress, FCC struggle with ways to create a national public safety network

Whether or not the recent Federal Communications Commission auction of the 700-MHz band being vacated by TV broadcasters was a success depends on your criteria.

On one hand, it was the largest radio frequency (RF) auction in history, bringing $19 billion into the U.S. Treasury ' nearly double estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. The software used through 261 rounds of anonymous online bidding worked flawlessly; one-third of the spectrum has been reserved for open access to nonproprietary devices; and 56 of the 101 bidders winning licenses were small businesses.

On the other hand, some studies estimated that the auction could have brought in as much as $30 billion; two large carriers, AT&T and Verizon, won the bulk of the licenses; no new nationwide carrier entered in the wireless market; and the license for the open-access C-block brought in only about half as much as expected.

But everyone at a hearing Tuesday before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet agreed that the big disappointment was the failure to get a successful bid for the D-block of spectrum, which had been set aside for a national public safety network.

The 700 MHz-band is being freed up by the FCC mandate that TV broadcasters move from analog to digital signals by February. It probably is the last large chunk of RF spectrum that the FCC will be able to auction off, and it is widely anticipated it will provide new forms of wireless broadband applications and Internet access. But the public policy centerpiece of the reallocation was the use of a 10-MHz-wide band called the D block to enable advanced interoperable communications for the nation's public safety officials and first responders at the federal, state and local level.

Establishing this network is 'the real measure of the success of the digital TV transition,' said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).

The D block received only one bid, for $472 million, about one-third of the minimum bid set by the FCC. Auction requirements called for a winning bidder to establish a partnership with the public safety community, giving it top priority on the resulting commercial network. Reasons for the failure have not been clearly defined, but initial critiques point to onerous build-out and service requirements under which the licensee would have incurred substantial costs without firm information on how public safety would use the network. Many of the specifics for the network were to be worked out after the auction, creating an uncertain environment.

The public/private partnership for the D block auction was not the first choice for many in Congress or the FCC. Most commissioners favored some form of direct funding for the public safety network.

'Public safety does not have the funds to build a network,' said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. 'Funding remains a significant challenge with respect to public safety interoperability,' and he said he believes a public/private partnership remains the most viable alternative for establishing a network.

House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) advocated another course: 'Auction the D block for commercial use and let public safety negotiate for construction of a network independent of us.' Funding the network was an issue Congress should deal with separately, he said.

Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) suggested using the proceeds of a D block commercial auction to fund a public safety network. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) was not convinced that this is a good idea.

'I am presently unmoved by suggestions that we should simply auction the D block for purely commercial use and hand the proceeds to public safety,' he said. 'At this moment I consider such an approach to be an admission that we are not serious about attaining true interoperability.'

Martin pointed out a legal roadblock to such a scheme.

'The preferable option would be to fund and build a public safety network,' he said. But, 'Congress has not yet passed any law that would allow the proceeds of an auction to go to a public safety network,' and the FCC does not have the authority to do that on its own.

The cost of building such a network has been estimated at $6 billion to $7 billion.

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