It’s a shame the Federal government is trying to take the round-about route in establishing a new network for first responders. Then the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wouldn’t be forced into the tortuous square peg-round hole exercise it’s going through now to figure out how to get private industry to pay for an emergency-quality broadband network to be only sporadically used for emergencies.
Some of the FCC Commissioners seem to feel that way also. As Commissioner Robert McDowell said last week when the FCC asked for a new round of ideas to try to fix the failed D-block auction, public safety isn’t using half of the 97 MHz it has now due to a lack of funds and lack of coordination. The current squabbling on the D-Block auction is over only 10 MHz, albeit a desirable 10 MHz in the 700 MHz band that will be used by TV broadcasters until next February.
The FCC’s “fresh look” order, remarkably published on the same day as it was approved at the May 14 Commission meeting, amounts to a quite the slap-down of the current public safety licensee, Public Safety Spectrum Trust, and its partner, Cyren Call. Even though the FCC recently released a report by its Inspector General finding that no auction rules were broken by public safety’s private-sector partner, that report was fairly narrow in scope.
There is, for example, this question in the notice: “We also seek comment on how the Commission can better exercise oversight over the activities of the Public Safety Broadband Licensee and the commercial partner. Is quarterly financial reporting adequate, or are additional disclosures by the Public Safety Broadband Licensee or commercial partner necessary? What additional measures, if any, should the Commission take to ensure the appropriate level of oversight.” The fact that PSST is surviving as a result of a $4 million loan came to the attention of the House Telecom Subcommittee in April, and called the relationship between the PSST and the company it picked to manage the network.
If that weren’t enough, a couple of paragraphs later the FCC asks whether it should rescind the license from the current public safety license holder (PSST) and seek new applicants. And if that weren’t enough, the Commission also calls into question the controversial Bidders Information Document (BID) that Cyren Call presented to potential bidders Frontline and Verizon that scared both of them off. The Commission wants to know whether any aspects of the BID document “were of particular concern” to potential bidders. Probably yes. The unofficial “suggestion” by Cyren Call and PSST for $50 million in lease payments probably had something to do with scaring off bidders also. One of the reasons no viable bidder emerged for the D Block was the spectre of winning a license, but losing 10 percent of the bid price if the winner couldn’t reach an agreement with public safety over the details of network operations. The Commission is trying to figure out how to eliminate that barrier while not giving public safety the upper hand in negotiations.
The Commission is trying to determine now, as it should have before, more detail about the relationship between the commercial licensee and the public safety community sharing the spectrum. Which side gets to make the technical calls about how the network should be built? Which side administers the network? How will the commercial licensee make any money?
Or, the Commission could go in a different direction entirely. It raised the issue of creating access within the D Block by wholesale access — an issue the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition raised early on in the proceeding. Everything is on the table. The Commission should have plenty of information and opinions on how it should structure its next attempt at the auction. The larger question is, even with all of the new information, can this two-networks-in-one really work?
If any Congressional staff get a chance to follow this issue by reading this order, and some of the comments that will be submitted, they might get the idea that a public/private partnership is a bad idea, and that it would be simpler, easier and more efficient to look for another solution to public safety’s coordinated spectrum needs. If nothing else, the FCC order, which contains dozens of questions on each its pages (the order is 101 pages long), presents the inevitable impression that anything would be simpler, easier and more efficient than trying to construct this hybrid.