WASHINGTON — The lead attorney for Verizon Wireless today called on policymakers and members of Congress to rethink their approach to public safety and open up a coveted section of the airwaves to wireless carriers on a local and regional basis.
Here at the National Press Club, Verizon Wireless General Counsel Steve Zipperstein outlined a plan for a national, interoperable communications network for first responders through public-private partnerships where companies such as his own would be able to bid on contracts in much the same way that firms like Boeing and Northrop Grumman build jets for the Air Force.
Verizon’s proposal would require an act of Congress, which had previously directed the Federal Communications Commission to auction of the public-safety portion of wireless spectrum to a provider that committed to build a nationwide network. In the FCC’s auction of the 700 MHz spectrum last March, the so-called D block failed to trigger the minimum bid. How to move forward with the spectrum remains on the FCC’s agenda.
“The failure of the D block auction last year has already demonstrated that the auction approach is not the best way to address these problems,” Zipperstein said.
Instead, he outlined a plan where the FCC would open the D block and an adjoining band of 10 MHz to public-safety authorities, who would issue a request for proposals for a local or regional network, giving wireless firms with an existing network in the area a chance to bid.
“The result will be that a much greater number of providers will have the opportunity to partner with public safety,” Zipperstein said. “Public safety should be free to select the commercial partner or partners of their choice”
For Verizon, the carrier with the largest wireless network in the country, the benefits of such a proposal are clear. The carrier was the largest bidder in last year’s auction, spending nearly $10 billion for spectrum it plans to use for its 4G mobile broadband network. Verizon has an ambitious build-out schedule for the network as soon as the spectrum becomes available following the transition to digital television in June. This morning the company announced technical standards for its LTE network, “inviting the device developer community to have at it,” as Zipperstein put it.
Freeing up an additional chunk of the 700 MHz airwaves for public safety communications would give companies like Verizon more access to the spectrum without the burden of maintaining a nationwide network.
Under Zipperstein’s proposal, the licenses would be allocated on a regional basis, but the network providers would have to build the network on a set of national standards to ensure that public-safety workers could communicate with each other.
The need for a nationwide, interoperable public-safety network has been highlighted in dramatic fashion in tragic events like the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, where the efforts of first responders were hindered because they couldn’t talk to each other.
“Interoperability is a matter of the utmost national security,” Zipperstein said.
By riding on the back of the networks already in place throughout the country, Zipperstein estimated that a nationwide public-safety communications infrastructure could be put in place for between $15 billion and $20 billion. Building a single network from the ground up would cost in excess of $65 billion, he said.
Once the FCC clears the DTV transition, the disposition of the D block can be expected to return to the agency’s agenda. For Zipperstein, the sooner the better.
“What we need now is a clear national strategy to ensure that the dream of next-generation wireless broadband technology becomes a reality for our nation’s first responders,” he said. “Let’s please not arrive at the 10th anniversary of 9/11 without a plan.”