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Future of emergency network in doubt

Should  the FCC re-auction a block of public airwaves to the highest bidder and turn the proceeds over to public safety professionals to build a nationwide emergency communications network?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Republicans on a congressional panel Tuesday said the Federal Communications Commission should re-auction a block of public airwaves to the highest bidder and turn the proceeds over to public safety professionals to build a nationwide emergency communications network.

The idea was raised as the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet heard testimony on why a plan aimed at using public airwaves and private money to create a nationwide emergency communications network failed to attract any interest in an otherwise successful spectrum auction.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Rep. Cliff Stearns, ranking member of the subcommittee, both suggested the solution as an alternative to trying to fix the current plan which failed to attract any interest from the commercial sector.

"With consensus, Congress could pass a law to use proceeds from the commercial re-auction for the public-private partnership," Barton said.

The subcommittee heard from all five members of the Federal Communications Commission as well as key figures in the behind-the-scenes negotiations that failed to lead to an agreement to construct the wireless broadband network.

The recently completed auction of a portion of the public airwaves, while raising a record $19.1 billion, failed to attract a bidder to build the network.

Disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, revealed limitations of the nation's emergency communications networks, like the inability of police and firefighters to communicate with one another.

Ideally, a new network would help solve the interoperability problem and avail emergency personnel of many of the advances in wireless technology that are available to commercial users.

The FCC approved the emergency communications plan last summer. Under the plan, the FCC set aside about one-sixth of the recently auctioned airwaves. The "D block" would have been combined with a roughly equal portion of spectrum controlled by a public safety trust to create a shared network.

The winning D block bidder, in exchange for use of the public safety spectrum, would build the network and make a profit by selling access to wireless service providers. But the block failed to attract a bidder.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., said he was "presently unmoved" by suggestions that the block should be auctioned for "purely commercial use" and the proceeds handed to public safety.

"At this moment, I consider such an approach to be an admission that we are not serious about attaining true interoperability," he said.

Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said his agency would need legislative approval to proceed with such a plan.

Estimates on how much a national network would cost have varied widely, but the commission has estimated it would cost between $6 billion and $7 billion. It is uncertain whether the block would generate that much revenue at auction, noted Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

Harlin McEwen, chairman of the nonprofit board that oversees the spectrum trust, opposed the idea.

"I don't think that's a practical solution," he said.

McEwen said it would not provide enough spectrum to emergency responders and would be unlikely to raise enough money to build the network.

Barring legislation, the FCC will have to decide what to do about the emergency network plan. Support for the concept behind the original plan was strong among some members of the House panel as well as the FCC, but there was also general agreement that more specificity was needed regarding the responsibilities of the winning bidder before any re-auction would begin.

"If we put forth rules that create too much uncertainty or don't allow a reasonable expectation of profit, then we will find that no entity is willing to bid," said Democratic commissioner Michael Copps.