Spectrum Public Safety Plan Meets Resistance at Hearing

A plan to have private investors build a national wireless broadband network for police and fire departments met resistance at a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday, including from the man in charge of New York's emergency broadband network.

Startup Frontline Wireless LLC, backed by two former U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairmen and several tech industry heavyweights, would set aside 22MHz of wireless spectrum from an upcoming auction of the 700MHz band for a dual-use commercial and emergency response network, with the winning bidder required to build a nationwide network that would give priority to police and fire departments.

A national broadband network for emergency response agencies would take billions of dollars to build, and a public-private partnership like the one Frontline has proposed is the only way it will happen, said James Barksdale, president and CEO of investment group Barksdale Management Corp. and a partner in Frontline. The U.S. government lacks the money to build the network, he said.

"We're not asking agencies to give us the spectrum," Barksdale said. "And public safety gets a free ride on it -- that's a heck of a deal."

Six years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. and two years after Hurricane Katrina, emergency response agencies across the U.S. still do not have broadband networks that allow agencies to talk to each other, said Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape.

"The FCC can achieve, at no cost to taxpayers, an interoperable public safety network that, I submit to you, will never be built if we don't do it this way," Barksdale told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "We are long past the time to talk about what might happen or should happen or is going to happen for public safety. Any serious proposal must address how this costly network will be funded and built without relying on government funds."

But several people at the hearing, including Paul Cosgrave, commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, questioned the Frontline plan. New York has already built a US$500 million emergency network that will roll out fully in early 2008, and the Frontline proposal could take away local control of emergency communications networks, he said.

Spectrum that's optimal to use for emergency communications in New York may not work for Boise, Idaho, he said. "A national network, based on a one-size-fits-all approach, may not meet the disparate communication needs of emergency responders throughout the country," Cosgrave said.

In addition, if emergency responders must share spectrum with commercial providers, the network may be jammed during disasters, Cosgrave said. The proposed network will be "dominated by commercial interests, and deployment and maintenance will be undertaken based on return on investment rather than effective emergency response," he added.

The Frontline plan would take 10MHz from 60MHz scheduled to be auctioned by early next year and pair it with 12MHz of spectrum out of 24MHz set aside for public safety. The 84MHz of spectrum is becoming available after Congress voted early last year to require U.S. television stations to abandon the spectrum and move from analog to all-digital broadcasts. The deadline for the transition to digital TV is in February 2009.

Under the Frontline plan, the winner of the auction for the 22MHz would be required to build a national broadband network, estimated by Barksdale to cost $12 billion. The network operator could then collect wholesale fees from emergency response agencies and from commercial telecoms that want to use the spectrum to provide broadband services.

Frontline is also asking the FCC to create rules that would require the winner of the 22MHz chunk of spectrum to resell access to any customer that can pay. Several consumer groups and tech companies have also called for open access provisions for part of the auctioned spectrum, saying it represents the best chance for a new national broadband provider that would compete with cable and telecom company offerings.

The FCC is expected to set service rules on the spectrum to be auctioned within weeks.

Representatives of two wireless carriers told the committee they oppose open access rules in the auction. Dick Lynch, executive vice president and chief technical officer at Verizon Wireless Inc., suggested open access and net neutrality rules called for by several groups would limit the appeal of the spectrum and drive down the cost the U.S. government receives in the auction.

The auction is expected to raise at least $10 billion, with many observers suggesting much more money will be bid.

"The auction must make the spectrum available in ways that will promote, not cripple, broadband deployment," Lynch said. [Open access and other] requirements are unwarranted, would deter innovation, and would not benefit consumers."

Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, also questioned the Frontline plan, saying the proposal doesn't address how local police and fire departments will pay for handsets and other equipment used to access the network. The best way to raise money for public safety equipment is to maximize the value of the spectrum at auction, he said.

"There's no reason this [spectrum] shouldn't go into the private sector and be profitable, too," he said.

Several Democratic senators and Wanda McCarley, president of Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International Inc., were more receptive of the Frontline plan. The proposal includes many ideas that many emergency response officials want, McCarley said.

"With this auction we stand at a crossroads," added Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. "Either we can provide extraordinary benefits to millions of Americans, or we can tilt the broadband policy to improve the already significant position of the powerful few that deliver this service. I think there's a clear path that we have to take -- the airwaves belong to the American people."

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