Spectrum auction to fund public safety broadband network

Obama administration plans to use $10.6B for network on the 700 MHz D Block

The realization of a unified public safety communication network could finally be in sight, and the Obama administration thinks it has a way to pay for it.

The Obama administration recently released its plan to free up spectrum bandwidth on the 700 MHz band that would give emergency workers and first responders their own solid chunk of cellular bandwidth to use to communicate in case of emergencies. The D Block, a 10 MHZ swath (split in two areas of spectrum) on the wavelength, would be committed to a national public safety network using Long Term Evolution technology for use of voice, data, video and GPS functionality.

The want of a single public safety network is nothing new, nor is the idea of using the D Block for it. In 2008, the Federal Communications Commission held an auction – Auction 73 – to sell spectrum that had been abandoned by television corporations after the switch to digital from analog broadcasting. The D Block ended up not selling in 2008, as the public safety community had fears that it would not get the spectrum it needed, especially in disaster scenarios, if it had to share the block with commercial telecommunications corporations.


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The Obama administration now wants to use the D Block for the public safety network and sell more of spectrum along the 700 MHz wavelength – predicted to bring in around $27.8 billion to the federal government – to be used to help build the public safety network, help bring wireless broadband to rural communities, continue research and development of mobile technology and help reduce the deficit.

The National Broadband Plan set forth by the FCC creates a roadmap of sorts on how to bring broadband to rural communities. Proceeds from the auction of the spectrum would help bring $5 billion to the project, along with a much-needed reform of the Universal Service Fund, which the FCC discussed at its open meeting on Feb. 8.  The project also has federal money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that was targeted as National Broadband Stimulus. Research and development would get $3 billion while the public safety network would get about $10.7 billion. The rest, about $9.6billion, would go to reducing the federal deficit.

An article at GovTech.com explains the current patchwork state of the U.S. public safety network. It includes two-way radios and the narrowband spectrum that is used by police and firefighters along with seemingly whatever else in terms of communication technology can be thrown into the mix.

“Proponents say today’s patchwork of communication systems, which has been in development over the past 50 years, generally involves two-way radio as the sole means of communication and the narrowband spectrum that’s currently allocated to police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers,” according to GovTech.com. “Public safety agencies say this is inadequate, limits effectiveness and delays response times during emergencies.”

Although $10.6 billion might seem like a lot of money to build a piece of critical U.S. wireless infrastructure aimed at a public safety, it might not be enough to fulfill the goal of a nationwide network. The D Block, according to the FCC, will have one license that is subject to a public-private relationship. Telecommunications companies may balk at helping the federal government build a network that will cost the companies money but will not create any commercial gain.

"I am concerned that the construction cost of the network is much higher than what’s built into the plan,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said of the plan at a hearing on a bill proposed by Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee, according to GovTech.com.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.

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