Public officials give 700 MHz network deals the skeptical eye

Plans to open up the 700 MHz band of the electromagnetic spectrum include a serious swath of bandwidth for public-safety concerns. So why were some public-security officials saying Saturday that they hesitate to get on board?

If that old saying about investing in land ("Good investment, since they ain't making any more of it") is sort of true for physical real estate, it's even more on-point for the electromagnetic spectrum. So when the 700 MHz band is released from its UHF-channel duty after the switch in 2009 to digital-only TV broadcasting...well, you expect a bidding frenzy.

And that bidding frenzy occurred for some parts of the band. After a sustained period of bickering among AT&T, Google, Verizon, and other telecom-interested firms, the last of five "700 MHz" blocks went up for commercial auction in January.

Those five blocks are not contiguous, but composed of 6- and 12-MHz slices of bandwidth scattered through the 698-806 MHz range (PDF available here). They are named, creatively enough, the A, B, C, D, and E blocks. Two large unnamed segments in the upper area of the band were reserved for public-safety uses -- specifically, for first-responder needs.

Half of the reserved public-safety spectrum is required to be paired with 10 MHz of the D block, creating the foundation of a public-private network that would be built to high public-safety standards but would also be a viable profit proposition for commercial carriers.

It's an appealing theory -- the free market driving innovation, and the public-good aspect benefiting too. But while other areas of the 700 MHz band brought in some serious money -- a combined $19.6 billion for blocks A, B and C -- the D block didn't even make its reserve price.

While the rest of us went election-crazy last Tuesday, the FCC voted to open up the use of that D space to certain devices that are able to geo-locate potential interference with other devices in the bandwidth area. That represents a relaxation of safety requirements, and the FCC hoped that by doing so it would encourage business concerns to take an interest in developing Block D -- perhaps re-igniting bidding interest.

Not so fast, say some public-safety officials. On Saturday, a group of police chiefs representing 35 US cities asked the FCC to cool its jets on a proposed re-auction of the D block.

The chiefs say that public-safety folk simply haven't had enough time to figure out how to use their blocks of spectrum. And some public-safety folk simply aren't buying the public-private idea, going so far as to say that even if corporations build such a hybrid, their jurisdictions will not use it, as they believe it won't be up to high public-safety standards.

The potential for such a network is enormous; at the same International Association of Chiefs of Police conference over the weekend, Motorola rolled out new wireless-broadband apps meant for the public-safety sphere, including a orthogonal frequency division multiplex (OFDM)-based video-surveillance system that can even prioritize public-safety apps when the network's congested or otherwise impaired.

Still, with turmoil among the intended public-sector beneficiaries, lethargy in the private sector, and new management on the way to Washington, spiffy tech may for a while yet take a back seat to low-tech processes of negotiation and discussion.

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