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."
These groups claim that additional spectrum would help public safety agencies deploy broadband communications systems that would fix problems experienced on September 11, 2001, when radio interoperability problems plagued emergency workers.
While these groups have advocated for more spectrum, they've stopped short of endorsing any one company's proposal to provide emergency-network services.
Cyren Call, the company started by Morgan O'Brien, wants to create a broadband trust that would raise roughly $5 billion from private investors to pay for the 30MHz of spectrum that he wants the government to set aside. And instead of Congress or local governments footing the bill to turn this spectrum into a network, Cyren Call proposes that private investors would pay the cost of deploying the equipment to build the networks.
But critics say the spectrum auctions would likely raise billions of dollars more than what the Cyren Call plan offers to pay. And they add that it may be difficult to find investors willing to foot the bill or such a network.
The Frontline proposal differs from Cyren Call's proposal because it is not asking for a spectrum grant. Instead, Frontline is willing to bid on the spectrum at auction, but it wants the FCC to set aside a sliver of the spectrum and mandate that whoever buys this piece of spectrum--whether it's Frontline or some other entity--be required to give public safety a priority should there be an emergency. The company also plans to deliver a wholesale service to mobile operators and other companies that want to sell wireless broadband services.
"Carriers already voluntarily provide priority for public safety in an emergency," said Janice Obuchowski, chairman of Frontline Wireless. "But we are suggesting that we make this more official. Make it a condition of the license."
But some critics say that allocating additional spectrum is unnecessary. The government has already set aside some spectrum in other bands for public safety. And with the 24MHz of spectrum allocated from the 700MHz band, public safety officials have roughly 47MHz of spectrum, said CTIA's Farren. He believes that is more than enough spectrum to serve the entire public safety community.
"Some of our members are able to serve 15 million subscribers with 47MHz of spectrum," he said. "At the most there are probably 10 to 12 million public users and first responders in the whole U.S."
Research analyst Entner agrees that first responders have enough spectrum already.
"We'd have to declare a police state to need all that spectrum," he said. "What they need to do is build next-generation networks that use the spectrum more efficiently. And that's not a spectrum issue, but a technology one."