Public safety spectrum, here we go again

by on March 31, 2008 · 12 comments

Better late than never, here are my thoughts on the FCC’s auction for the D Block public safety band. There was only one bid for the block, Frontline Wireless to shut down, and some are even suggesting improprieties. Sadly, we’ve got a long way to go before we have an operating public safety network. Why did the D Block auction fail? I think at root the problem is that the FCC simply placed too many restrictions on the would-be licensee, and that’s something the FCC should keep in mind as it considers what to do next.

Under the D Block’s service rules the commercial licensee must come to an agreement with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (which is the licensee for the adjacent public safety spectrum) about the details of the network to be built. If it doesn’t come to an agreement, the FCC can impose whatever requirements it sees fit on the licensee, and if the licensee surrenders its license or has it taken away, they must pay a forfeiture penalty that can run into the millions. Because there are no similar penalties for the non-profit PSST to come to agreement, this allows the PSST to basically dictate the terms of the network. Why would anyone bid for the privilege to be a part of that deal?

Sadly, Chairman Martin doesn’t seem to get this. He recently lamented the fate of the D Block:

“Did we get everything perfect in it? Obviously not because no one was willing to end up taking on that burden,” Martin conceded. “So, do I wish that someone was willing to take on that burden? Yes. And do we need to restructure it in such a way that someone is willing to take on that burden? Absolutely. But absent somebody else coming up with some idea to solve this, this is the only way to solve what’s really a public-safety crisis.”

Instead of expecting some selfless corporation to “take on the burden” of such a thankless deal, why not try instead to create a license aligned with the interests of both the private sector (profit) and public safety (cheap and interoperable communications solutions)? Here’s my recipe:

  1. Get rid of the PSST, a bureaucracy more than prone to capture that will do nothing but hold a commercial licensee hostage.
  2. Take the spectrum now held by the PSST and combine it with the D Block. Create two national licenses on the combined spectrum so as to inject competition and avoid a monopoly provider.
  3. Place public safety obligations on each of those licenses but allow the licensees to lease excess capacity. What sort of obligations? Obviously public safety should have priority, and leased access would only be secondary. Beyond that, the FCC could include minimum performance standards in the licenses to ensure that the networks are built to public safety standards without having to prescribe specific technologies or methods.
  4. Auction the licenses without reserve prices.

There are no doubt more than a few hurdles for such a plan to overcome, but I think it makes sense to allow market forces develop public safety networks. I’d love to hear any critiques of this idea. No doubt I’ll be submitting a comment to the inevitable rulemaking on this issue and it would help me to figure out the weaknesses of this scheme.

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