- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Whither the “D” block?

The fate of a yet-to-be-built national public safety communications network is still up in the air weeks after airwaves earmarked for the project — referred to as the D block — failed to sell in a government auction. The lack of such a network has lawmakers and regulators alike calling for a second shot at auctioning the spectrum and setting up a public-private partnership that requires the winning bidder to build an interoperable network.

But not everyone is convinced it’s needed.

“When you want to get a firetruck from ‘A’ to ‘B’, you don’t build a highway just for that firetruck; you use the highway that’s already there, you put lights on, you put a siren on, that’s how you clear it, and there you go,” said Declan Ganley, chief executive of Rivada Networks. “There is massive amounts of state-of-the-art wireless infrastructure already out there.”

Mr. Ganley’s company specializes in public safety communications in the U.S. and Europe. He spoke yesterday about the fate of the D block at a lunch sponsored by the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a D.C. nonprofit that supports a free-market policies.

In its auction of spectrum being vacated next year by TV broadcasters switching to digital signals, the Federal Communications Commission put the D block slice of wireless airwaves up for sale with a minimum price of $1.3 billion. The media-regulating agency attached conditions to the block, requiring the winning bidder to negotiate with emergency responders to allow them to pre-empt commercial wireless service in the event of a disaster.

The FCC deemed the plan the best option absent congressional funding for the project that would enable emergency officials to build their own network.

But according to Mr. Ganley, a new national network would be doomed to fail regardless of what conditions were placed on it.

“There is absolutely no way that a new entrant can go in and build a viable communications network as a new entrant and be able to compete credibly with somebody who’s able to spend $3 or $4 billion a year, like Verizon,” he said.

“The answer is take some of that spectrum and sell it for as many dollars as you can get” and then give the money to public safety officials. “Let them decide amongst themselves what they need it for, because the NYPD’s needs are different from the needs of the sheriff of Tombstone, Arizona.”

Mr. Ganley’s plan involves negotiating agreements with incumbent carriers throughout the country. Safety officials would merely use those networks during day-to-day operations, and in the event of an emergency, Rivada makes a private deployable cellular system capable of providing voice and data services if the commercial networks are overloaded or if service is not available in a given area.

The company provides interoperable emergency communications to public safety agencies in 17 states, he said.

“There isn’t a single capability that I can think of that [the D block network] was promising to deliver that you cannot have today by leveraging off what’s already there,” he said.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin last week said he is seeking comment on what the agency should do. He and other commissioners recently testified before Congress that, absent any specific appropriations, a public-private partnership is the only way to ensure the network is built.

c Channel Surfing runs Wednesdays. E-mail krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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