- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The upcoming wireless spectrum auction is the last viable chance for the construction of a nationwide broadband public-safety network, public-safety advocates say.

Frontline Wireless is one of many groups that have been lobbying the Federal Communications Commission as the agency sets the rules for the so-called 700 MHz auction, which in January puts up for sale spectrum being given back by analog broadcasters as the country prepares for the digital television switch in 2009.

While public-safety officials have been assigned spectrum for the creation of a nationwide communications network, Congress has been slow to allocate funds for its development, and there isn’t a financial incentive for a private company to build a network that covers the entire country, said Louis J. Freeh, who was FBI director from 1993 to 2001.

“You don’t get many second chances in life. This is it,” Mr. Freeh said.

The FCC is scheduled to vote today on the rules for the auction, which is expected to raise as much as $20 billion. The spectrum is coveted because it is of a low frequency, which means it can penetrate walls and requires fewer transmission towers.

At issue is the commission’s service rules for the spectrum and whether an auction winner would be required to build a public-safety network, and if so, how.

Public-safety communication has been a key issue in the wake of communications failures during the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In each of those crises, emergency responders lacked the ability to communicate with each other, slowing the responses significantly. Problems ranged from disparate frequencies to incompatible devices and the need for an override capability.

Still, little has been done to improve emergency communications.

“The big obstacle to getting this done obviously was the cost,” said Mr. Freeh, who supports the Frontline plan. “Congress would have to appropriate billions of dollars, or one of the wireless networks would have to scrap their retail model and invest billions of dollars into a new business plan, and there’s been no incentive to do that.”

Under the Frontline plan, the owner of the spectrum block next to the public-safety spectrum would act as a national public-safety licensee and would be responsible for building a new wireless broadband network that eventually would cover 99 percent of the total population. The licensee would raise enough money to build the network by wholesaling commercial access to its network to third parties.

In an emergency, police, firefighters and other responders would have access to the public-safety spectrum as well as the wholesaler’s commercial spectrum as needed.

Frontline says its “open-access” model would encourage the development of new products and services by business.

But some say the plan faces an uphill battle, as rules requiring a wholesale business model would be a departure from the business plans of existing wireless carriers.

Frontline’s most notable critics are Verizon Communications and AT&T;, which say Frontline and its supporters, which include Google Inc., could implement their plan by simply winning the auction without an FCC-mandated rule on wholesale access.

“Google is demanding the government stack the deck in its favor, limit competing bids, and effectively force wireless carriers to alter their business models to Google’s liking,” AT&T; spokesman Jim Cicconi said last week in response to the search engine’s letter to the FCC in which it said it would participate in the auction only if the rules include open-access provisions.

Likewise, Verizon said last week: “Imposing any such requirements in the competitive wireless market would reduce the revenue the government will receive from the spectrum auction and limit the introduction of new and innovative wireless services.”

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