WASHINGTON--A high-profile government auction earlier this year failed to attract enough private investment dollars for airwaves dedicated to a nationwide broadband network for emergency responders. On Wednesday, federal regulators began trying to resuscitate the idea.
At its monthly meeting, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted to begin accepting comments from the public on a wide range of questions about what to do with that chunk of the 700Mhz spectrum, which is scheduled to be vacated by analog TV broadcasters next February as part of the congressionally mandated switch to all-digital programming. The spectrum is considered valuable both for commercial operators and emergency workers because of inherent properties that allow it to propagate over long distances and penetrate walls.
Ever since the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, politicians have lamented the lack of interoperability among various emergency communications networks as a key obstacle in responding effectively to disasters that arise.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, called Wednesday's action "the first step in a renewed effort to provide our nation's first responders with the broadband network they need and deserve."
The FCC first attempted to sell off the so-called "D" block of airwaves during a bigger auction that ultimately brought in a record $19.6 billion for the government when it concluded in March. In rules issued last summer, the regulators dictated that the license for the 10Mhz block would be set aside for creation of a nationwide public safety network, to be built through a "partnership" between the public and private sectors. Under that arrangement, public safety operators would have priority access to that spectrum in emergencies, but the winning commercial operator would also be allowed to use it on a secondary basis.
But the auction didn't come anywhere close to attracting the FCC's $1.3 billion reserve price. Frontline Wireless, the only major contender in that segment of the auction, went out of business without comment before the auction even began. Some analysts say that's because of the current economic downturn, aggravated by the FCC's failure to lay out clear enough expectations for the network and its private investors.
"Today all five of us are admitting we tried something and failed on it," Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said at Wednesday's meeting.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Martin said the agency plans to move as quickly as possible to revise its rules and begin the new auction. He said he's not sure whether they'll be able to pull that off by the end of the year, which is what he had previously hoped, but he does hope for the licenses to be assigned before the digital television conversion.
The FCC order adopted Wednesday sets the stage for the new rules, asking for ideas about how to handle a wide range of issues, from whether the public-private partnership model is still a wise idea to what technical requirements the shared network should meet. The comment period will be open for 30 days, with another 15 days for replies to the initial wave of suggestions.
Some consumer advocacy groups and members of Congress have already expressed concerns about the fate of the public safety spectrum block and asked the FCC to investigate what caused the auction to fail.
The FCC said its goal is to provide as clear guidance as possible to potential bidders in hopes of avoiding another abysmal turnout. Martin, however, said he hadn't ruled out the idea of scrapping a public-private partnership and simply auctioning off the spectrum to the highest bidder without any requirements to build an emergency network, with Congress potentially directing those proceeds to fund a public safety network.
The two Democratic Commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, said they would've preferred to see Congress dedicate federal funds to building such a network in the first place. But they said they were willing to give the public-private partnership approach another try, so long as it produces the same result.
"The longer we delay implementation of an interoperable broadband network, the more lives we put at risk," Adelstein said.