Public safety bids stir spectrum spat

As 700MHz auction approaches, groups say some of that space should go to emergency responders. Mobile operators disagree.

The Federal Communications Commission hasn't set a date yet for what is expected to be one of the biggest and most important spectrum auctions, but the debate over how best to use this valuable commodity is already raging.

The situation heated up this week when a start-up called Frontline Wireless, headed by former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, filed comments with the FCC that proposed a new plan for using some of the 700MHz spectrum for a national public-safety wireless network.

Frontline's proposal is similar to another idea introduced by Nextel founder Morgan O'Brien, who heads up a company called Cyren Call. Last April, Cyren Call asked Congress and the FCC to take out about 30MHz of wireless spectrum in the upper 700MHz band from the auction process to build a national emergency communications network.

In November, the FCC denied Cyren Call's proposal. But the company is still lobbying Congress for legislation that would authorize its plan.

Nearly all public safety organizations support the idea of allocating additional spectrum for public safety, but mobile operators and other critics say that there is plenty of spectrum already available for that purpose.

"We believe the current allocation is more than sufficient to serve the public safety needs," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for the cellular industry's trade organization, CTIA--the wireless association. "What is really needed is funding for new communications equipment for first responders and money to develop better coordination within the networks."

The 700MHz band of spectrum, which has been used to provide analog TV service, is considered the last piece of prime real estate left in wireless spectrum. And mobile operators, as well as companies in other industries like cable or satellite TV, are expected to bid on licenses. The auction is likely to generate more than $10 billion in revenue for the government.

Congress has set a deadline of February 2009 to make the switch from analog to digital TV, freeing up the 700MHz band of spectrum. The FCC hasn't set an auction date yet, but under the Digital Television and Public Safety Act of 2005, it's required to start auctioning the remaining unsold spectrum by January 28, 2008.

"Spectrum is like money," said Roger Entner, a vice president at the market research firm Ovum. "You can never have too much of it. And this particular spectrum is beachfront property. And once it's gone, that's it."

The spectrum band is attractive for mobile operators and anyone else wanting to offer mobile communication services, because it can travel long distances and easily penetrate walls. And because signals can transmit farther, it's ideal for operators looking to cover rural areas because less equipment is needed to build the network, which greatly reduces the cost of the network.

The government has already set aside 24MHz of the analog spectrum for public safety purposes. In February, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Chiefs of Police told a U.S. Senate committee that they need an additional 30MHz of spectrum. Groups such as the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials (APCO) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) agree that first responders need more than the 24MHz that has been set aside for them.

"Public safety networks are all moving towards IP and wireless broadband networks," said Robert Martin, the executive director of NENA. "So we think that having more bandwidth to support these services is important. And we need more spectrum to do that."

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