The lesson of 9/11 for civilians and first responders can be
stated simply: in the new age of terror, they — we — are the primary
targets. The losses America suffered that day demonstrated both the
gravity of the terrorist threat and the commensurate need to prepare
ourselves to meet it. — 9/11 Commission Report (2004)
Nearly six years after the terrorist attacks on the United States, the
government is finally responding to what was obvious to all first
responders on that horrific day in 2001: the lack of interoperable
communications cost lives.
That lack of interoperability was not lost on the 9/11 Commission, as
one of its 41 recommendations to Congress included making more spectrum
available for first responders to build a nationwide, IP-based
In late 2005, Congress did exactly that, pressuring broadcasters to
leave their 700 MHz analog spectrum as part of the digital television
(DTV) transition set for Feb. 17, 2009. The spectrum is as ideal for
wireless networks as it is for broadcasters since the airwaves penetrate
walls and travel great distances.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to sell the vacated
spectrum during a January auction that could bring in more than $15
billion in bids. One of the prime blocks up for
auction is located next to the spectrum dedicated for public safety. The
FCC plans to pair the two blocks for the building of a wireless first-responder network.
While most of the media hype
surrounding the auction has centered on whether Google will make
a run at some of the commercial spectrum, the building of a
nationwide first-responder network remains a critical aspect of the
Open access isn’t only FCC experiment
The [NY Fire Department] ordered both towers fully evacuated by
8:57, but this guidance was not conveyed to 911 operators and FDNY
dispatchers, who for the next hour often continued to advise civilians
not to self-evacuate, regardless of whether they were above or below the
impact zones. — 9/11 Commission Report.
As Congress in 2005 originally saw
it, the 700 MHz auction would offer not only enough spectrum to
build a new national network to deliver advanced commercial wireless
services, but also have enough leftover spectrum to give first
responders their own national network.
But the FCC concluded that not enough public money was available to
build the system. Most of the proceeds of the auction will go a public
subsidy fund for digital television converter boxes with the rest going
to reduce the national debt.
Reluctantly, the FCC turned to a private-public scheme to get the first
responder network built. The FCC is making a 10 MHz commercial
spectrum block available next to public safety’s dedicated 10 MHz of
spectrum, and it will likely cost the high bidder several billion
The winner of the block will be required to work with public
safety agencies, who control the spectrum dedicated to first responders,
under a single, national license. Under the partnership, public safety
agencies will lease spectrum from the partnership. Public safety will
have priority access to the spectrum and the commercial spectrum holder
will have secondary access to the public safety broadband spectrum.
The commercial operator of the public-private emergency network will be
expected to build the network and cover 75 percent of the U.S.
population within four years. Within 10 years, the network builder is
required to cover 99.3 percent of the country.
Estimates for building the network reach as high $10 billion.
“As I have many times said, my first preference — by a long country
mile — would have been a fully funded, federally funded
public-safety-grade network reserved solely for first responders,” FCC
Commissioner Michael Copps said.
Given the costs, though, Copps added, “The use of a public-safety private partnership, however, creates an opportunity to provide
state-of-the-art technologies to our nation’s first responders in a
timely and affordable manner.”
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said, ultimately, the public-private
partnership was the only way to go.
“While I also would have supported a network exclusively for the use of
public safety, the simple reality is that there currently is no way to
fund such an enterprise,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said while introducing the
Next page: Frontline’s 4G
Page 2 of 2
Frontline wants public-private favor
The FDNY’s radios performed poorly during the 1993 WTC bombing for
two reasons. First, the radios’ signals often did not succeed in
penetrating the numerous steel and concrete floors that separated
companies attempting to communicate; and second, so many different
companies were attempting to use the same point-to-point channel that
communications became unintelligible. — 9/11 Commission Report.
Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt has a
lot at stake in the agency’s decision to go with a public-private
partnership for public safety. After all, his company, Frontline
Wireless, originally proposed the idea.
In addition to Hundt serving as vice chairman, the Greensboro,
N.C.-based Frontline boasts some heavy hitters, including Haynes
Griffith, the founder of Vanguard Cellular Systems; and Janice
Obuchowski, the assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
at the Department of Commerce, heading the National Telecommunications
and Information Administration (NTIA) under President George H.W. Bush.
Financial backing comes from prominent venture capitalist John Doerr,
Jim Barksdale and Ram Shrira, among others.
AT&T and Verizon are also reported to be interested in bidding on the
“In the wake of the FCC’s decision, we can roll up our sleeves and get
to work building the business of our dreams,” Griffin said after the FCC
finally decided on the public-private partnership plan.
According to Hundt, a 4G network, like the one Frontline is proposing, would run
10 times faster than the current AT&T EDGE network deployed for
iPhones. While public safety agencies would have priority access to
the network, excess capacity will be leased to commercial operators.
“The policy debate has come a long way in a short period toward open
networks and a public-private partnership, and we commend the FCC for
advancing these important public interests,” Obuchowski said in a statement.
Still, Frontline insists, the FCC came up short. Frontline originally
proposed that the agency require excess capacity on the public-private
network be sold on a wholesale basis. The FCC also rejected a request by
Google that the prime commercial spectrum up for bid also have wholesale
According to Martin, network neutrality rules, unbundling obligations
and wholesale requirements are not productive and undermine private-sector investments.
“I do not support such regulations,” he said. “We must continue to
encourage the critical investment needed to build the next-generation
wireless network. [The auction rules order] does not apply these
regulations to this block or any other block. The commission has found
the right balance between providing incentives for infrastructure
investment and fostering innovation for new services and products.”
Without wholesale requirements, Frontline’s Barksdale said the FCC runs
the risk “that this spectrum will simply be warehoused by the largest
carriers rather than turned loose to meet public safety’s needs.”
“We need a third competitor,” he said. “We don’t need the FCC to tie a
ribbon around the auction for Verizon and AT&T.”
Next week, Part III will take a look at tech’s interest in the spectrum outside of the 700 MHz.