Frontline Wireless joins the interoperability party

by on February 27, 2007

Police LightYesterday I filed a public interest comment (PDF) in the FCC’s proceeding to create a national public safety broadband network in the 700 MHz band. Not coincidentally, so did Frontline Wireless, a new company started by former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and former NTIA Administrator Janice Obuchowski among others. In their filing they propose a new plan to build a national wireless broadband network to be shared by public safety and consumers. This plan comes closer to the commercial provision of public safety communications that I’ve been suggesting, but it’s still a bit off. Below I’ll talk about the plan, but first some background.

As I’ve explained before, the digital TV transition frees up 84 MHz of spectrum. Congress has allocated 24 to public safety and 60 for auction. Morgan O’Brien’s Cyren Call asked the FCC to allocate additional spectrum to public safety for a national network by removing a 30 MHz block of spectrum from auction. The FCC denied the petition saying, quite rightly, that they didn’t have the authority not to auction off the spectrum Congress told them they had to. Cyren Call has since found a sponsor in John McCain who has said he will introduce a bill that would remove the 30 MHz from auction and give it to a “public safety broadband trust.”

The FCC’s current proceeding centers on what to do with the 24 MHz of spectrum that Congress did allocate to public safety. Specifically, the FCC asked for comment on its plan to take 12 MHz of this spectrum and license it to a nonprofit representing the public safety community that would in turn build a national broadband network, charge first responders a fee for service, and lease excess capacity on the network to commercial customers.

To me, this plan is laudable because it acknowledges that the current system of assigning spectrum licenses to individual jurisdictions helps create an environment of balkanized and incompatible radio systems. National licenses that offer subscription services to public safety agencies help solve the collective action problem that causes a lack of interoperability in first responder communications. It also recognizes the benefits of allowing private entities to share in public safety spectrum. A shared network vastly increases the economies of scale available to the network.

That said, the plan pursues what the FCC calls a “centralized national approach” by creating only one national license. This would create a monopoly service provider for first responder communications. It also limits the license to nonprofit entities, thus artificially limiting the pool of qualified potential licensees and possibly undermining the beneficial incentives that would be created by the commercial provision of pubic safety communications services.

Ideally, the FCC would assign at least two competing licensees to help prevent the establishment of a strong incumbent monopolist. Spectrum allocated for public safety should be assigned to private entities for commercial provision of public safety communications. That is, commercial carriers should be able to deploy networks over spectrum that is now restricted to public safety. They should be able to sell excess capacity to private customers. Of course, licensees should be required to interconnect, and first responders must have priority on shared networks. And although the FCC would first have to get authority from Congress, I don’t see why these licenses shouldn’t be auctioned. The revenue could go to public safety who could use the money to pay for network subscriptions.

The Frontline Wireless plan doesn’t call for removing spectrum from auction as the Cyren Call plan does. In fact, they state that they plan to bid on 10 MHz of spectrum adjacent to the public safety block. However, what they do want is the FCC to make the block of spectrum they plan to bid on come with certain public safety obligations. Here’s what they say:

[The licensee would] be required to (1) fund the construction of a nationwide broadband infrastructure that satisfies public safety’s need for an interoperable, secure, and robust wireless broadband network, (2) provide public safety with priority access to its commercial broadband spectrum during emergencies, (3) deploy its commercial broadband network based on open access principles, (4) commit to making its capacity available on a wholesale basis, thereby promoting broadband delivery to rural areas and ensuring that the commercial licensee remains focused on the provision of robust network services to public safety agencies and the commercial customers that will be using the common broadband facilities, and (5) enable roaming to help rural and smaller carriers. Any entity applying to bid on this commercial spectrum block would certify its commitment to abide by these requirements, which would run with this spectrum (i.e., any future assignee would be bound by the same commitments). In return, the winning bidder would receive a license for the commercial block to provide commercial wireless broadband services on the common infrastructure it constructs to support the broadband public safety network. In addition, the winning bidder would have the exclusive right to use the excess capacity of the public safety broadband spectrum on a secondary, unconditionally preemptible basis.

Of course, any spectrum that is licensed with these terms would no longer be “flexible use” and its value at auction would decrease (I wonder how Congress would feel about that?). There would also be less spectrum available for commercial carriers to deploy new networks for consumers.

Two things come to mind. First, we don’t need to modify any of spectrum now slated for auction to make this plan work. Congress just needs to allow commercial providers to operate on public safety spectrum. Apply all the terms Frontline enumerates to existing public safety spectrum and auction off the license to that spectrum. As we’ve seen before, public safety has lots of spectrum that it doesn’t use efficiently–spectrally or economically. It would take some political courage, but why not tackle that spectrum first? Additionally, auctioning off this spectrum for just the type of use Frontline suggests would create a new revenue stream for the government that it could give to public safety.

Second, Frontline’s plan is dependent on the FCC’s centralized national broadband network. To that extent the FCC would still be creating a monopoly for first responder communications. Although I’m heartened by the competition that can be provided by the commercial market for such a network, I’m not sure this would protect the first responder customers without regulation. I would still like to see two. This is something I need to give more thought to.

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