By Roy Mark
June 14, 2007
WASHINGTON — A controversial plan to use a public/private partnership to build a nationwide interoperable network for first responders received both support and criticism today at an often-contentious Senate Commerce Committee hearing.
“Without question, the concept of a partnership between public safety and a commercial operator — as some have suggested — would represent a paradigm shift in the way traditional public safety communications have been managed and operated,” Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said. “It raises many difficult questions that must be carefully considered and answered.”
As originally envisioned by Congress, public safety agencies would get $1 billion of the auction proceeds to build an interoperable network. Broadcasters are vacating the spectrum as part of the digital television transition, with the majority of the spectrum to be used by wireless broadband services. The auction is expected to fetch as much as $20 billion.
The idea began several months ago with a proposal by Frontline Wireless to carve out 10MHz of spectrum in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) upcoming 700MHz auction. The spectrum slice would still go to the highest bidder, but the winner would have to agree to combine the spectrum with the 24 MHz of spectrum already dedicated to public safety agencies.
The winning bidder would then commit to building a national public safety network that would cover 99 percent of the United States. The network would be used for commercial purposes, but priority would be given to first responders in emergency situations like Hurricane Katrina.
Jim Barksdale, the Netscape founder and a partner with Frontline Wireless, told the lawmakers a nationwide public safety network could cost as much as $15 billion and 10 years to build. According to Barksdale, the winning bidder of the public/private spectrum swatch would assume full responsibility for building and operating the network.
“It is completely unrealistic to expect, as the incumbents seem to, that public money will pay for a public build-out,” Barksdale said. “That is not going to happen. It did not happen after 9/11, nor after Katrina, and it is not going to happen now. You know that. Public safety knows that. And we know that.”
Other Frontline Wireless founders include former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, venture capitalist John Doerr and Mark Fowler, an FCC chairman during the Reagan administration.
“It seems like a no-brainer to me,” Barksdale said. “For the first time there is a concrete proposal to finance a nationwide, interoperable, broadband network that does not require legislation, does not require a $30 billion appropriation from the federal or state government and does not delay the important 700 MHz auction.”
But Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) questioned whether the plan would lower the total bidding amount for the spectrum. The DTV plan was pushed through the Senate under the then Commerce Committee chairman with the idea that all the spectrum earmarked for commercial use would go the highest bidder.
“There are still outstanding questions to be resolved,” Stevens said. “The conditions put on this spectrum could reduce the amount brought in through the auction. However, the real question I think we all want to know is who really controls the spectrum.”
Richard J. Lynch, Verizon Wireless’ executive vice president and CTO, agreed with Stevens.
“Restricting eligibility would unquestionably reduce the economic benefits of the auction,” he said. “Proceeds will fund multiple programs for the DTV transition and the deployment of interoperable communications systems for public safety.”
By limiting eligibility with the restrictions, Frontline Wireless wants to put on the spectrum for its public/private proposal, Lynch said, “Will ensure that the spectrum will be auctioned at a price lower than its true market value. As a result, the viability of these valuable and necessary programs will be at risk.”
Paul J. Cosgrove, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, pointed out that the Frontline Wireless proposal is “new and, frankly, untested.
“Mandating that a portion of the limited spectrum currently allocated to public safety be used for a nationwide, public/private broadband network on the 700MHz band is fraught with uncertainties and risks.”
The FCC is expected to announce the rules for the auction within the next two weeks.