Supporters of D Block Auction Plan Fire Back at Critics

By Stew Magnuson
Advocates of the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to sell unused portions of spectrum that would be reserved for first-responder broadband systems are urging that an auction of the valuable airwaves move forward this year.

It all boils down to who is going to pay to build the system, said members of Connect Public Safety Now, which is funded by telecommunication companies.

At issue is the D block of radio spectrum that opened up when the FCC ended analog television broadcasts in June 2009.

Original plans called for portions of the block, which has 10 megahertz of spectrum, to be exclusively used by federal, state and local public safety organizations. A 2008 auction that would have sold the D block to a provider — which in turn would have offered its services to public safety agencies — only garnered one bid.

In March, the FCC released the National Broadband Plan, which called for the D block to be auctioned off to commercial providers. They would sell their wireless broadband services to consumers, but with the provision that public safety agencies be given priority access in times of emergency.

That plan has faced widespread opposition in Congress.

Giving the spectrum to firefighters and police departments will require them to either build their own infrastructure or use already existing commercial communication systems, said James Lee Witt, former Federal Emergency Management Administration director, who spoke at a National Press Club event.  

Leveraging telecommunication infrastructure might be feasible in large cities. As for remote, rural areas, they will not be able to depend on commercial providers to invest in the communication backbone needed, said Witt, who served in the Clinton administration.

“A lot of these areas will never be covered,” he said. “It may be 20 years down the road before a system is planned, engineered, developed and put in place.”

The proposal to create a nationwide public safety network has been around since 1993, and there has been no progress, he noted. He urged that the auction go forward and the commercial providers be allowed to “fix this for our nation.”

The companies would share the spectrum with consumers. That would give the telecoms an incentive to invest in the infrastructure and refresh it with new technologies as they come available.

Opponents of the FCC plan have questioned whether firefighters and police would be able to access the airwaves in times of emergency when citizens may be desperately trying to reach loved-ones on their mobile phones.

It wasn’t always the case, but new technologies such as LTE (long-term evolution) wireless broadband, which sends data over the airwaves in packets, can ensure that first responders would have priority access, said Dennis Roberson, vice provost at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“That has been resolved,” he said.

The FCC can proceed with the auction in 2011 without congressional approval. If it did so, the money garnered would end up in the Treasury. The coalition would like to see Congress mandate that the money earned from the auction go into a fund that would build rural networks.

Topics: Homeland Security, Emergency Communications

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