Public Safety Wireless Plan Sees Red


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.

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