They packed Brooklyn, New York's elegant Borough Hall yesterday—police and fire department officials, telco lawyers, and a former state Attorney General—lining up to tell all five members of the Federal Communications Commission how it should set up a national broadband public safety communications system. But before they spoke, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps laid out the truth: years into the process, the agency still isn't even sure what to do.
"What purpose should this network serve?" Copps asked in his opening statement at the en banc hearing. "Video? Data? A backbone that connects existing voice networks? Or a whole new, built-from-scratch network that can do it all?"
How much will it cost? Copps wondered. And most perplexing: "Should licenses be regional or national?"
Actually, many panelists at the hearing had an answer to that last question. Drop the vain attempt to auction off the so-called 700MHz "D Block" to one national licensee, they told the FCC. Instead, allow public safety agencies to access the spectrum and build their systems on a regional basis instead.
"There is nothing wrong, per se, with the goal of nationwide interoperability," argued James Farmer, former counsel to the 9/11 Commission as well as former New Jersey Attorney General. "The way that emergencies actually happen, however, suggests that the best way to achieve interoperability nationwide is by first building it locally and regionally, and then interconnecting the regional interoperable networks."
The head of New York City's Communications Division put it more plainly. "The Commission should not re-auction the 'D' Block spectrum," Charles Dowd said, "and should appeal to Congress to permit the allocation of this spectrum immediately to public safety."
The position that the government should authorize a broadband based public safety communications network built, "from the bottom up," as Farmer put, comes in the wake of the single failed portion of the FCC's recent 700MHz auction, concluded in mid-March. That massive sale of now defunct analog TV channels raked in over 19 billion dollars, except for the spectrum reserved for public safety. A successful bidder on the D block's two hunks of bandwidth would have leased them for commercial purposes from a public safety administration agency. But nobody bid the FCC's minimal $1.3 billion asking price for the block.
A subsequent FCC audit found that potential buyers were scared to fork over the money, fearful that the public safety burdens of the public/private partnership would leave them with many obligations and too little revenue.
Chop it up…
So in May the FCC launched a new proceeding on what to do about the D Block. Since then it has gotten an earful from cities across the country who plead that they can't wait for the Commission to figure this one out. Chop that block into regions, they say, and let us build our own networks in partnership with commercial vendors. American cities have demonstrated that they can do the job "without the need for a public-private nationwide network," Paul Crosgave, New York's Director of Information Technology told the hearing.
Not surprisingly, the potential commercial partners for these proposed regional networks appeared the FCC hearing, showing great enthusiasm for the idea. AT&T's marketing development director Stacey Black recommended that instead of auctioning off the D Block on a national basis, give it over to the designated public safety administrator and let it develop national interoperability guidelines. Cities and regional safety planners would submit RFPs (Request for Proposals) that conform to the specs, then build their own systems.
…or keep it whole?
But there are more than a couple of problems with this line of thought, defenders of the national D Block plan noted. Robert Gurss of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials-International countered that, unlike New York City, many suburban and rural parts of the United States don't the have resources to build their own regional public safety communications infrastructures.
And some commenters worried whether a regionally-based plan can be unified without strong national oversight. "From my perspective, if you don't have some kind of leadership, some kind of national governance" to make even a cross-regional, inter-related system happen, "it will never happen," warned Harlin McEwen, Chair of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corporation, which will administer the public safety aspect of the D Block. "History has told us that we have lots of incompatible local systems that get built out with local requirements without any national consideration."
Queries about funding a regional scheme repeatedly popped up during the hearing, with a sensible observation coming from William J. Andrle, Jr. of Northrop Grumman Information Technology. "It does bear mentioning again that this exercise might be unnecessary if there was at least some direct funding from the federal government," Andrle stated during his testimony. "We have federal matching funds for highways, the environment, and other needs. Why nothing—zero —to facilitate the establishment of interoperable public safety broadband services that will enable first responders to better protect the public?"
Can the FCC change course?
Then there's the question of whether the FCC even has the legal right to drop its D Block plan and adopt a regional approach. A skeptical Commissioner Robert M. McDowell asked regional plan supporters AT&T and Verizon whether they thought the agency could legally make the switch.
"Did I hear AT&T and Verizon correctly?" McDowell said. "You don't know if we've got the statutory authority."
"I do not know, Commissioner," replied Verizon Vice President Don Brittingham.
"Yet you're making this proposal, without knowing… " an obviously bemused McDowell continued.
"Let me be more clear," Brittingham explained. "As a lawyer I don't know technically whether you have authority or not. But even if you don't currently what Verizon is saying is that in order to solve this problem in the best interest of public safety, Congress should step in and do that. There should be legislation to give you the authority to reallocate the spectrum."
Will Congress step in soon? McDowell wondered. AT&T's Black offered a few hopeful words. Larry Krevor, Vice President of Sprint-Nextel, was a little more candid with the Commission. "I think at this point you have to auction the spectrum," he advised. The FCC would have to go back to Congress to set up a different plan. "And certainly with the US about to have an election and a new Congress and new Committee assignments, etcetera, the Hill will probably not move as quickly as we might like."
Towards the end of the hearing, McDowell promised that the Commission will make a decision on the D Block, but also confided his frustration. "The bottom line is that there is no bottom line right now," he said. "There is no critical mass behind a particular set of concepts other than something needs to be done. It's hard to find agreement. So again, I will recommend a strong prayer for the FCC."
Testimony of the panelists at the FCC's hearing on the D Block