Skepticism Clouds Proposed Spectrum Plan

Nextel founder Morgan O’Brien ran into more opposition today for his proposal to change plans already in place to provide public safety agencies with 24MHz of spectrum and $1 billion to build an interoperable system.

Thursday morning, he urged a skeptical Senate Commerce Committee to ditch that approach. O’Brien and his new company Cyren Call favor a public-private trust that would lease spectrum to commercial operators in exchange for the operators’ commitment to construct a national broadband network giving priority to public safety agencies.

That plan, though, would break down a law approved by Congress and signed by President Bush last year granting public safety agencies approximately one-third of the spectrum being vacated by television broadcasters as part of the digital TV (DTV) transition set for February 2009.

The remaining spectrum is scheduled to be auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in hopes of bringing $10 billion to $15 billion into the federal coffers. Public-safety agencies would receive $1 billion from the auction. Both the public-safety spectrum and the funding are part of the 9-11 Commission’s recommendations.

O’Brien told lawmakers a better approach would be to create the Public Safety Broadband Trust (PSBT) with half of all the available spectrum from the DTV transition. He said the trust would pay the U.S. government $5 billion for the spectrum.

“On a day-to-day basis, the great majority of capacity would be devoted to commercial use,” O’Brien told the panel. “While public and private wireless operations traditionally have been viewed as incompatible, the 21st Century network contemplated in the Public Safety Broadband Trust proposal permits rational shared use.”

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who guided the DTV legislation through Congress while serving as chairman of the Commerce Committee, was quick to question O’Brien’s proposal, which has already been rejected by the FCC.

“By definition, you’re saying we shouldn’t do it [proceed with the DTV transition]. We would have to change the law,” he said to O’Brien, noting it took Congress almost 10 years of negotiations to approve the transition.

Stevens also questioned the idea of putting public spectrum in private hands. He said while the FCC auctions spectrum to private companies, the government still retains ownership of the spectrum.

“Your idea might be great, but we must think first of protecting the public spectrum,” Stevens said. Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) also had problems with the trust idea, noting, “If we put spectrum in the hands of the private market, we will delay putting more spectrum in the hands of public safety.”

O’Brien acknowledged his plan is complex and would require new legislation.

“This is new. This is disruptive. But it doesn’t mean legislation can’t be approved,” he said.

Other senators on the committee pressed O’Brien on the CTIA’s and the High Tech DTV Coalition’s position that more spectrum isn’t needed for public safety, only better spectrum management.

“The proponents of such criticism either are woefully misinformed or willfully disingenuous about the reality of public safety spectrum allocations,” O’Brien said in his prepared testimony. “The fact that this fiction originated from CTIA, the organization representing the wireless carriers who have mdae no secret of their appetite for the spectrum in question, speaks volumes.”

CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent didn’t hesitate to dish it right back to O’Brien.

“The DTV Act represents 10 years of painstaking deliberation on the p[art of policymakers and stakeholders,” he said. “Mr. O’Brien had ample opportunity during those 10 years to put forth his Cyren Call proposal and have its merits debated before the DTV legislation was enacted.

“Instead, Cyren Call offered this alternative approach in April 2006 – two months after the legislation was signed into law.”

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