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9/8/2008
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FCC Mulls Another Spectrum Auction For Public Safety

The agency is expected to take up at its Sept. 25 meeting Martin's proposal that the entire D block be eligible for sale for $750 million.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has proposed that spectrum for public-safety usage be put up again for auction under rules that would be more lenient than those that stifled a bid earlier this year for the D block airwaves.

The FCC is expected to take up at its Sept. 25 meeting Martin's proposal that the entire D block be eligible for sale for $750 million -- well below the $1.3 billion reserve that had been set for the D block earlier this year in the sale of 700-MHz airwaves. That auction produced nearly $20 billion in bids for spectrum for commercial usage.

The D block had been set aside for both commercial and public-safety usage, but potential bidders complained that the dual approach was too complicated to manage. Qualcomm bid $472 million for the D block, but because the figure was so far below the reserve price, the bid wasn't considered serious.

The FCC, Congress, and a host of state and local public-safety organizations have been grappling with the whole issue of improving public-safety communications after emergency communications failed miserably during the World Trade Center attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and during hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005.

Public-interest groups want government agencies to take over the pubic-safety spectrum, which is occupied by a patchwork of local, state, federal, and private organizations. Many cities have argued that public-safety spectrum should be free, although Congress would likely have to approve that approach.

"We want someone to build out a public-safety network and solve the interoperability problem," Martin said in a conference call Friday. "My priority is less about the impact on competition."

Verizon Wireless and AT&T garnered the majority of the 700-MHz spectrum for commercial use earlier this year.

In addition to municipalities seeking free spectrum, other attempts have been made -- unsuccessfully -- to obtain the spectrum for public-safety and commercial usage. Frontline Wireless, a consortium of prominent venture capitalists and former high-ranking government officials, folded its plan for the spectrum before the bidding began. Cyren Call, representing the emergency responders Public Safety Spectrum Trust, has indicated an interest in the spectrum.

Another swathe of spectrum -- the so-called "white spaces" that reside alongside the 700-MHz airwaves -- could have public-safety use, if the white spaces can pass interference tests that are under way.

If the block of spectrum doesn't sell to a single bidder, the proposal circulating at the FCC calls for airwave licenses to be broken up for bidding in 58 regions.

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