Critics Oppose Republican Spectrum Plan

A Republican proposal to auction more wireless spectrum to mobile carriers would leave U.S. police and fire departments "worse off" than they are today, instead of creating the new nationwide public safety mobile-broadband network anticipated for a decade, one police chief said Friday.

The proposal, released this week by Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, focuses on clearing spectrum for mobile broadband uses.

But the draft legislation would stop mobile voice deployments by public safety agencies now happening in the 700MHz spectrum band, and it would auction off the so-called D block of spectrum in that band, instead of turning it over to public safety agencies, as many police and fire departments have long advocated, said Christopher Moore, chief of police in San Jose, California.

"We cannot support this draft legislation," Moore told the committee's communications subcommittee. "We are not here asking for the spectrum and funding to make a profit. We are here asking for spectrum and funding in order for us to better serve and protect the American people."

Other critics told the subcommittee they opposed the Republican spectrum proposal because it would limit the authority of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to conduct auctions of spectrum from television stations and it would make it difficult for the FCC to reserve spectrum for unlicensed uses.

Public safety agencies have been awaiting a nationwide network since the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., when responding agencies to the attacks couldn't communicate with each other because of incompatible equipment using multiple bands of spectrum.

The Public Safety Alliance, an advocacy group of public safety agencies and supporters, will "strongly oppose" any efforts to auction the D block, Moore said. The draft legislation also doesn't give priority funding from spectrum auctions to the deployment of the public safety network, he said.

The FCC, in an auction that ended in early 2008, attempted to sell the D block, on the condition that the winner build a nationwide network to be shared between public safety agencies and commercial users. The auction failed to generate the FCC's minimum bid, and the D block has been in limbo ever since.

In February, President Barack Obama called on Congress to give the D block to public safety agencies and allocate more than US$10 billion to build a nationwide network. But Republican subcommittee members said Friday they have to consider the U.S. government's US $1.5 trillion budget deficit when deciding whether to auction the D block.

"Any plan to allocate this prime spectrum opens a $3 billion hole in the nation's budget," said Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and subcommittee chairman.

Other witnesses questioned the Republican proposal's ground rules for how the FCC could auction spectrum voluntarily turned over by U.S. television stations. The proposal ties the FCC's hands on pricing, on relocating TV stations and on reserving some of the spectrum for unlicensed uses such as Wi-Fi, said Peter Cramton, a consultant and an economics professor at the University of Maryland.

The proposed two-sided incentive auctions, in which TV stations would be paid a portion of an auction's proceeds for giving up their spectrum, will be complex, Cramton said. The incentive auction "requires a great deal of study by experts to get the details right," he said. "It would be a mistake for Congress to prevent the FCC from adopting the best auction design by mandating auction details and other restrictions."

The proposal would require prospective users of unlicensed spectrum to band together and outbid commercial bidders in the auctions, instead of allowing the FCC to reserve some spectrum for unlicensed uses, as it has done in the past. That provision would make it nearly impossible for new unlicensed spectrum to be allocated, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The Republican plan would stop the FCC from allowing so-called super Wi-Fi in the TV spectrum's unused bands, called white spaces, Calabrese said. No one has come up with a good model to auction unlicensed spectrum, because it's free and available for anyone to use, he said.

"Had this provision been in place before the FCC designated the 2.4 GHz band for unlicensed [Wi-Fi] sharing, America's invention of today's multibillion-dollar Wi-Fi industry, with all its benefits, would never have occurred," he said. "It would ... undermine the nation's longer-term economic interest in ensuring opportunistic use of wireless broadband and the emergence of increasingly interconnected smart radio devices."

But Representative John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, questioned why prospective users of unlicensed spectrum shouldn't pay for it. "Our national debt is really the threat," he said. "Isn't spectrum too valuable to give away for free, especially in this economy?"

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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