March 2, 2007 10:00 AM PST

Public safety bids stir spectrum spat

The Federal Communications Commission hasn't set a date yet for what is expected to be one of the biggest and most important spectrum auctions, but the debate over how best to use this valuable commodity is already raging.

The situation heated up this week when a start-up called Frontline Wireless, headed by former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, filed comments with the FCC that proposed a new plan for using some of the 700MHz spectrum for a national public-safety wireless network.

Frontline's proposal is similar to another idea introduced by Nextel founder Morgan O'Brien, who heads up a company called Cyren Call. Last April, Cyren Call asked Congress and the FCC to take out about 30MHz of wireless spectrum in the upper 700MHz band from the auction process to build a national emergency communications network.

In November, the FCC denied Cyren Call's proposal. But the company is still lobbying Congress for legislation that would authorize its plan.

Nearly all public safety organizations support the idea of allocating additional spectrum for public safety, but mobile operators and other critics say that there is plenty of spectrum already available for that purpose.

"We believe the current allocation is more than sufficient to serve the public safety needs," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for the cellular industry's trade organization, CTIA--the wireless association. "What is really needed is funding for new communications equipment for first responders and money to develop better coordination within the networks."

The 700MHz band of spectrum, which has been used to provide analog TV service, is considered the last piece of prime real estate left in wireless spectrum. And mobile operators, as well as companies in other industries like cable or satellite TV, are expected to bid on licenses. The auction is likely to generate more than $10 billion in revenue for the government.

Congress has set a deadline of February 2009 to make the switch from analog to digital TV, freeing up the 700MHz band of spectrum. The FCC hasn't set an auction date yet, but under the Digital Television and Public Safety Act of 2005, it's required to start auctioning the remaining unsold spectrum by January 28, 2008.

"Spectrum is like money," said Roger Entner, a vice president at the market research firm Ovum. "You can never have too much of it. And this particular spectrum is beachfront property. And once it's gone, that's it."

The spectrum band is attractive for mobile operators and anyone else wanting to offer mobile communication services, because it can travel long distances and easily penetrate walls. And because signals can transmit farther, it's ideal for operators looking to cover rural areas because less equipment is needed to build the network, which greatly reduces the cost of the network.

The government has already set aside 24MHz of the analog spectrum for public safety purposes. In February, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Chiefs of Police told a U.S. Senate committee that they need an additional 30MHz of spectrum. Groups such as the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials (APCO) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) agree that first responders need more than the 24MHz that has been set aside for them.

"Public safety networks are all moving towards IP and wireless broadband networks," said Robert Martin, the executive director of NENA. "So we think that having more bandwidth to support these services is important. And we need more spectrum to do that."

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802.11 N (draft N so far) multiplies spectrum infinitely
because the multiple antennas can re-use the same bandwidth many times.

I saw a demonstration of an antenna system that could do 200 simultaneous full bandwidth WI-FI connections.

The bandwidth limitations of an isotropic antenna need to be left in the digital dust.

Of course any new technology is held back by people with a financial interest in maintaining the old way. The cell phone and wireline carriers have succeeded in stonewalling the adoption of 802.11N standards to such an extent that the WI-FI group is labelling DRAFT-N equipment just to get this exciting new technology out to the public.

Why are they fighting it so? If i can have a 500 meg channel to my house for free, why should i pay cable-landline-cellphone companies for their puny deliveries?
Posted by disco-legend-zeke (448 comments )
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WiFi is important
The unfortunate part is that WiFi is under section 15 technology.

This means that the spectrum used by it is not granted specifically for WiFI, it is permitted use of the spectrum only under the condition that the transmit power levels are kept under a certain limit.

The result is that while it can support a bunch of devices, they have to be relatively close in proximity to the access point.

If your phone and internet are down in an emergency, your WiFi access points are likely also down.

Something like WiMax has a much longer range than WiFi because it is FCC licensed and has higher power levels.

One solution could be to use something like WiMax to bring up all the WiFi access points, and use VoIP phones etc.

The technology to do this isn't quite there yet, but this is an area that tends to progress quickly in comparison to the technologies using the rest of the spectrum.
Posted by Dachi (797 comments )
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Why not harden the "regular" networks?
First off, I agree that 24 MHz is probably enough for emergency communication and if it isn't, we have a police state or a technical problem.

Second, I would say the large majority of emergency communication today takes place on public networks like cell phones and the internet.

I would say finding ways to set up wireless trunks for cell phone towers and WiFi hotspots is nearly as important.

It is a shame the American Radio Relay League are a bunch of old farts still bitter that morse code is no longer required to get into their little club, because they have the manpower, know how, the organization, the spectrum, and the operating licenses to set up some of these wireless backhauls in emergency areas.

The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) could potentially handle something like this, like many emergency services, the equipment they use is mostly still stuck in the stone age (Thanks ARRL!).

Dachi <- closet ham tech
Posted by Dachi (797 comments )
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Is 24 MHz enough?
You being your argument by stating that "24 Mhz is probably enough for emergency communications" and support that argument with the opinion that "the large majority of emergency communications takes place on public networks".

Your supporting statement indicates that there is insufficient bandwidth in the set aside area for emergency communication because emergency responders have taken to using public networks to augment their meager bandwidth in the electromagnetic spectrum. Having been a first responder, team lead for confined space rescue operations, it is a terrifying and dangerous situation when your radio communications are being stepped on by too many people needing to operate at the same frequency. This was demonstrated to the extreme on 9/11. Relying on cellular communication during a disaster seeks only to exacerbate the problem as thousands of people call home to assure everyone that they are fine while others clog the airways trying to find out if there loved ones are okay. Emergency responders need the best, most reliabe communication system that we can give them and part of that are clear channels of communication.
Posted by thinkermonkey (7 comments )
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