Congress Studies 700 MHz Auction's Failure To Deliver Public Safety Network

Some lawmakers suggest that the nationwide public-safety block be reauctioned and the proceeds be used to build out a public-safety network.
Was the FCC's recent 700-MHz spectrum auction a success if the D block public-safety network wasn't sold?

That and other questions were examined Tuesday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

While there was general agreement that the entire auction, which raised $19.1 billion, was successful, the fact that the public-safety block failed to sell is viewed by many as a failure. Congress has been seeking improved public-safety networking in the wake of the failure of existing networks to respond well in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Center towers and in natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Thousands of fragmented networks are used by public-safety agencies, but they are generally uncoordinated and have difficulty functioning properly in major crises.

"The simple reality is that public safety does not have the funds to build a network," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin stated. "It would have been better to take the auction proceeds and provide the public-safety community with the resources needed to build their own interoperable network. But we do not have the authority to directly fund such a network. As a result, the public-private partnership was the only means available to us to address this crucial issue."

The D block spectrum, which carried a $1.3 billion reserve requirement, was designed to enable a combination of public-safety and commercial interests to coexist in a network. Ideally, the commercial part of the D block would fund the public-safety part, but the idea failed when no serious bids were placed for the D block and bidding languished in the early days of the 700 MHz auction.

Republican congressmen at the hearing Joe Barton and Cliff Stearns have suggested that a nationwide public-safety block be reauctioned and the proceeds be used to build out a public-safety network. Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat who is chairman of the committee, indicated he opposed that idea.