700 MHz Auction Keeps U.S. Public Safety Network In Limbo

Qualcomm had the high bid of $472 million for the spectrum, but was dismissed because it was so far from the reserve price.

A nationwide public safety network seems even more remote after a Congressional Committee examined the failure of the recent 700 MHz spectrum auction to draw enabling bids for the network.

Money to fund a deployment of the network remains the key issue. The FCC had placed a $1.3 billion reserve on a combination commercial/public safety D-Block. Handset maker and wireless technology company Qualcomm placed the high bid of $472 million for the spectrum, but that bid wasn't considered serious because it was so far from the reserve price.

At hearings held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee Tuesday, attention was focused on the role of Cyren Call, a company that advises the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corporation (PSST). Cyren Call's chairman is Morgan O'Brien, a founder of Nextel, which occupied much public safety spectrum before it was acquired by Sprint.

The prelude to the 700 MHz auction was marked by Byzantine activities involving companies jockeying for position to operate in the public safety spectrum, which failed miserably during the terrorist attacks of September 11 and natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina.

Public interest organizations, suggesting that Cyren Call may have scared off some bidders for the D-Block, have asked the FCC to investigate the role of Cyren Call in the auction. Frontline Wireless, which had been planning to bid in the auction, dropped out suddenly shortly before the start of the auction.

Earlier this month, O'Brien issued a statement on any alleged spectrum lease payments. "Anyone stating or implying that I or any member of Cyren Call or the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corporation 'demanded' a spectrum lease payment is lying," he said. "Furthermore, anyone suggesting that any spectrum lease payment would be paid to Cyren Call is lying."

Witnesses at the hearing Tuesday offered different opinions for creating a nationwide public safety network. Karen P. Tandy, senior vice president of global government affairs at Motorola, said nationwide network should be viewed as "a long-term solution" because it can't be available in most areas for many years.

"While the broadband plan for public safety contemplated by the (FCC)'s rules is a laudable goal," she said, "this timeline for modernizing public safety communications systems is unacceptable from a homeland security and public safety perspective." She went on to endorse the idea that the D Block with the 700 MHz public safety band licensed to the PSST "should be utilized to create a nationwide broadband network for first responders. This must be done while creating a viable commercial business opportunity for the D Block operator."

Also at the hearing, Robert F. Duncan a retired U.S. Coast Guard rear admiral, said by connecting special hardware and software to existing commercial wireless infrastructures, public safety requirements can be met.

Duncan, who is senior vice president of government services for Rivada Networks, recommended that the FCC drop its D-Block approach.

"We need not, and cannot, embrace a regulatory approach which promises unclear capabilities at a distant time, and which will require massive investment in entirely new infrastructure, especially given the risk of creating a dependency on one commercial carrier," he said.

The FCC commissioners have indicated they favor re-auctioning the D-Block, although with some tweaking of the commercial/governmental provisions of the auction.

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