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Congress Mulls D Block Spectrum Fate

Lawmakers are trying -- again-- to create a wireless public safety communications network on the D Block of the 700 MHz spectrum.

The issue of what to do with the wide swath of spectrum in the so-called D Block of the 700 MHz spectrum is once again before Congress, and, once more, there appears to be no consensus on how to use it for public safety purposes.

In a hearing this week held by the Subcommittee On Communications, Technology and the Internet, Congressman Rick Boucher (D-VA) outlined the three broad scenarios that have gained traction recently. The D Block, for which the FCC had set a reserve price of $1.3 billion, failed to attract any serious bids in last year's 700 MHz spectrum auction and the entire D Block spectrum has lain fallow ever since.

The other parts of the 700 MHz spectrum were auctioned off for more than $19 billion with most of it going to AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Efforts to create a nationwide interoperable broadband network for public safety have intensified since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"For almost a decade, there has been a widely expressed need to create a nationwide fully interoperable communications network for first responders," Boucher said at the hearing, "but as of today that network remains a goal. It is not a reality."

One proposal cited by Boucher calls for simply giving the entire D Block to the public safety community and merging it with the 10 MHz of spectrum already held by the Public Safety Spectrum Trust. The congressman, however, said he doubts whether the approach would generate enough funding, particularly in rural areas, to be successful.

"Another proposal is to auction the 10 MHz D Block unencumbered and for purely commercial use," Boucher suggested. Once again he questioned whether this approach would have financing difficulties and leave rural areas behind.

The third option cited by Boucher -- purchase of the D Block by a commercial entity for combined public safety and private use -- is essentially a replay of last year's D Block auction that failed to attract any serious bids. This option, said Boucher "would need to be restructured to address the concerns of commercial providers that resulted in the failure of a similarly structured auction in 2008."

Boucher said the most important goal is to obtain "true nationwide public safety interoperability" that won't leave rural areas or financially disadvantaged regions behind.

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