The Federal Communications Commission Wednesday released the questions it will ask, and answers it is seeking, as it creates a framework for reauctioning the D block of spectrum.
That is the spectrum that is to be shared with first responders for a national, interoperable wireless network, but which failed to meet its minimum bid in the recent auction of 700-megahertz spectrum being reclaimed in the switch to digital TV.
The FCC's second notice of proposed rulemaking seeks input on modifications of the rules that would make it more likely to result in a successful auction and, eventually, a public-safety network. Options on the table include not auctioning the block as a public-private partnership if that is what it takes.
The notice asks how, if the public-private partnership idea is dropped, such a network would be funded and what the relationship between the commercial and public user would be.
The FCC is also asking whether if a winning bidder and first responders fail to reach a sharing agreement, the block should go to the next highest bidder, or simply be reauctioned without the public-private partnership requirement.
If the block is not auctioned as a public-private partnership, the agency asked, should wholesale and open access requirements be applied?
The FCC will put out for public comment any specific proposals it wants to adopt -- a move pushed by commissioner Michael Copps.
Copps said he still supports a public-private partnership, but the commission needs to begin the process with a healthy dose of realism. He called it the toughest auction the FCC has ever held in a difficult economic environment. Copps said he thought the item teed up the important questions. He added that if he didn't like the answers, he would not hesitate to say that the commission needs to go back to the drawing board.
It would be unfortunate for people to assume that by torpedoing the partnership, Copps said, commercial entities took it as a sign that they could proceed to a purely commercial model. He added that he feared that the item could send such a signal.
Copps and commissioner Jonathan Adelstein would have preferred direct federal funding of a network, but absent that, they said a public-private was the best alternative. "Both sides have to try to make it work," Adelstein said.
Commissioner Robert McDowell said all five of the commissioners were admitting that they tried something and failed, and that they were already going back to the drawing board. He added that he had supported the public-private partnership, but that the buildout requirements for the block discouraged the commercial bidders. He called the new inquiry an opportunity for others to tell the agency what went wrong. He said he was open to all suggestions about how to make it work, but the process should not just “fail better” next time.
Chairman Kevin Martin and commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate pointed out that most of the auction was a success, raising billions of dollars above estimates and creating opportunities for wireless competition.
But Martin conceded that the auction did not produce a successful D-block bidder. He said the commission must focus on a public safety network. “I believe we should continue to try to use the D block to achieve that goal,” he said, adding that he continued to support the concept of a public-private partnership but pointing out that the new rulemaking attempt to provide clearer rules of the road for what will be required.
McDowell pointed out that first responders have 97 MHz already, one-half of which lies fallow from lack of funding. “In the absence of congressional funding for a network, the FCC concluded the public-private partnership,” he added.
The FCC will hold a public hearing on the D block reauction this summer.
House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) praised the FCC's moves."“I’m pleased the FCC will allow a meaningful opportunity for interested parties to be heard," he said in a statement. " The decision over how to auction the D block is critical to the future of public safety communications. I urge the FCC to take the time to get it right.”