Forget the money: Congress should allocate radio frequency band for public safety

Restrictions on D Block make it too hard to sell to a commercial interest

The Federal Communications Commission’s failure to sell a swath of the 700 MHz radio frequency band called the D Block at a public auction in 2008 has temporarily halted development of a nationwide public safety network. The quickest and simplest way to eliminate this road block would be to allocate that spectrum for public safety use.

Because Congress established the terms for disposing of this spectrum, Congress should act now to bundle it with the existing public safety channels so that creation of a nationwide, interoperable network for law enforcement, emergency services and other first responders can go ahead. The nation might forgo a billion dollars that could have been generated by auctioning off the spectrum to a private-sector licensee. But strings now attached to the D Block already have undercut its commercial worth, and its value to public safety could be far greater.

The spectrum is part of a band of radio frequencies that are now available after last year’s national conversion from analog to digital TV broadcasting. Parts of the vacated spectrum were auctioned by FCC to commercial users in 2008. For three blocks of radio frequency spectrum that TV broadcasters vacated, licenses raised more than $19 billion.

The D Block went unsold, largely because it is adjacent to similar blocks of spectrum already set aside for public safety use and was reserved for a single nationwide licensee that was supposed to cooperate with the public safety community. The licensee would have been required to negotiate a network sharing agreement, giving public safety agencies priority access to the commercial network in this band during emergencies. The 10 MHz swath now dedicated exclusively to public safety is seen as inadequate to ensure proper access to communications during emergencies.

Viable bidders were scared off by the price of more than $1 billion set by FCC for D Block, the cost of network construction, uncertainties of a network sharing agreement, and heavy penalties for failure to come to an agreement.

The spectrum for the public safety network, held by the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corp., cannot be used until the fate of the D Block is decided, putting development of a nationwide network on hold. To date, this delay has not been a serious problem because the technology endorsed by the public safety community, termed Long-Term Evolution, is not yet widely available. The standard still is being finalized, and commercial LTE equipment is not expected in this country until later this year.

But the Commerce Department is establishing a testbed environment for the equipment, and the public safety community is ready to move forward with a network. The only thing missing is the bandwidth.

So Congress and FCC must decide how to best use the D Block and get the public safety spectrum out of limbo. It could be auctioned again, but that failed once. The asking price could be lowered to attract more bidders, but that reduces its value to the Treasury. Rules for cooperation could be loosened to make it more attractive, but that could jeopardize public safety access. The simplest answer is to devote it to public safety.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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