Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, with time dwindling to move top policy priorities as a new administration prepares to assume power in January, is laying the groundwork to win approval by mid-December of final rules for highly controversial public-safety and wireless broadband auction initiatives.
Somewhat less certain is whether equally contentious reforms of the universal service fund and intercarrier compensation regimes will make it on the Dec. 18 meeting agenda. If the USF/ICC item or any of the other proceedings are not ready for a vote by Dec. 18, Martin could have one last chance to put his imprint on telecom policy at a tentatively scheduled Jan. 15 meeting.
Even if Martin succeeds in rounding up votes to pass 700 MHz D Block, advanced wireless services-3 and USF/ICC reform measures, the incoming Obama administration will have the job of addressing any regulatory and legal challenges as well as conducting bidding for wireless licenses in 2009.
From most indications, controversy over D Block, AWS-3 and USF/ICC issues will not end when Martin is replaced as chairman of the FCC.
The FCC has doggedly continued to wrestle with how to bring interoperability and broadband capabilities to the country’s first responders in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and violent storms in recent years, events that highlighted serious shortcomings and vulnerabilities with public-safety communications systems.
Revised D-Block initiative
Under the new Martin plan, the FCC’s D-Block auction would provide options for national and regional licensing subject to relaxed buildout requirements and performance benchmarks (tied to population density) at various intervals throughout the 15-year license term. Long Term Evolution and WiMAX technologies could be used by winning bidders of licenses in 58 public-safety regions. The agency has proposed a cap of $48.50 that can be charged monthly to a first responder for accessing the public-safety/commercial network.
The D Block comprises 22 megahertz (10 megahertz of commercial spectrum and 12 megahertz of public-safety spectrum) in a 700 MHz band with excellent propagation characteristics.
Major public-safety groups back the re-auction of a nationwide missed-use license, though New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia and other cities object to such a licensing scheme and to other rule changes proposed for the D Block. The FCC failed to attract a bidder for the minimum $1.3 billion license at the 700 MHz auction earlier this year.
NYPD leading rebellion
The New York City Police Department has been at the vanguard of a rebellious movement opposed to Martin’s approach to the D Block re-auction. The NYPD and public-safety officials in other cities support local and regional D-Block licensing and believe the FCC has compromised too much in terms of buildout and coverage requirements in order to make the re-auction more attractive to prospective bidders in the private sector. But even with sweeteners to induce a commercial entity to invest as much as $20 billion to acquire spectrum and construct a national system, doubts persist about whether the agency can find a taker for a national license the second time around.
“The NYPD believes that there is simply no business case for a commercial wireless network operator to build a nationwide network that will meet public-safety coverage and survivability needs,” stated NYPD Deputy Chief Charles Dowd in an FCC filing.
The Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corp., the public-safety broadband licensee, insists there is solid support for a national D-Block license. The PSST reiterated that local and state public-safety agencies simply lack financial resources to go it alone by building their own broadband networks.
“This problem has been exacerbated by the current economic downturn, as even large cities and localities are faced with massive budget shortfalls, PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen told the FCC.
Indeed, the PSST pointed to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to cut spending and lay off employees to address economic troubles, noting the situation “could prevent the NYPD from acting on the [D Block] proposal it advocates.” Still, the PSST asserts the Martin’s revised D-Block blueprint needs fine tuning insofar as its responsibilities and obligations and those of the commercial licensee. “The PSST also questions why the commission seeks to assume unprecedented oversight of the PSST’s internal and external activities in its partnership role, but not the activities of its D Block partner(s),” the organization stated.
The PSST’s relationship with its agent, Cyren Call Communications Corp., has been the subject of intense scrutiny since the auction failure in March. An FCC probe cleared the parties of any wrongdoing. Future funding of the PSST, which has been kept afloat to date by loans from Cyren Call’s investors, remains a big question mark. Cyren Call Chairman Morgan O’Brien is seeking immediate FCC clarification on PSST funding issues, suggesting the startup may be forced to end its business relationship with the PSST depending on how D-Block rules are fashioned.
Wireless providers tend to support a regional request-for-proposal process for the public-private partnership in order reduce technical, business and regulatory risks.
AT&T Inc., parent company of AT&T Mobility, acknowledged such an approach would require legislation, but predicted that “it would best achieve the prompt construction and operation of an effective shared network because the network specifications and obligations of all parties would reflect the individualized needs of local public-safety entities and would be clearly defined at the outset.”