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This meeting could have changed what will happen with the D block and I am sure everyone has his or her own idea of how it would have unfolded

The Meeting that Should Have Been

Monday, April 07, 2008

The 700-MHz auctions are over and we all know who won what. We also know that Qualcomm was the sole bidder for the D block but did not bid enough to meet the reserve price. Now the FCC has to decide what to do with the D block that was supposed to be part of a commercial and first responder shared network with first responders having priority.


The Monday morning quarterbacks are out in force: The D block did not receive more bids because the cost of the network would be too high, Cyren Call chased Frontline away from bidding, there was only one license and the Public Safety Community could not guarantee how soon and how many first responder organizations would sign up for service on the new system, the PSST wanted to run a first responder MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) operation and therefore the commercial entity that held the license would not have direct contact with the first responder community and on and on. There are as many ideas about why Qualcomm was the lone bidder than there are winners in the auction.


But none of this really matters. The fact is that the D block was not won at auction means the first responders are facing a number of problems and the FCC needs to figure out what to do next. Ideas are a dime a dozen and, like everyone else, I have my own ideas about what should happen. I think the travesty about all of this is that the FCC kept the anti-collusion terms of the auction in place until April 3, 2008, instead of expiring March 29 as everyone expected.


The problem with the April 3 date is that the largest wireless conference and exposition in the United States was held between March 29 and April 3. Chairman Martin was speaking on the first day, and I have heard rumors that FCC did not want to put him in an awkward position by having to answer questions about the D block. I don't have a clue if this is true, but what I do know is that because the FCC extended the anti-collusion date, the meeting that should have taken place at CTIA Wireless 2008 was not permitted.


What kind of meeting would this have been? It would have been a meeting of everyone interested in the D block-those from the commercial side that are looking at this block of spectrum and trying to decide if they might be interested if different terms were offered, network management service companies that could bid on and win the spectrum and then put together a consortium of players to build out the network, rural telecommunications companies represented by the NRTC (National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative) and the RCA (Rural Cellular Association), the CTIA and other interested parties including, perhaps, the FCC.


The meeting could have taken place one afternoon during the show and could have included high-level representatives from each of these groups since they were all there. The Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) was well represented by Cyren Call and PSST members certainly could have been present as well. Senior representatives from AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, Alltel and many other networks were at the show as were Qualcomm, Northrop Grumman, Ericsson and other companies that provide managed services. Bechtel, American Tower the PCIA and the rest of the tower industry was there along with many government officials from FEMA, HLS, NTIA and other agencies.


There will be no better place to hold a meeting to discuss the future of the D block, the first responder community's need for communications and the public sector's ability to help fulfill these needs using next-generation commercial technologies. There will be no better place to put together a consortium of players that can make this vision a reality. But we all ended up tip-toeing around the subject in keynote speeches, panels, the exhibition area, in hallways and at parties.


Valuable time was lost because the FCC decided to extend the anti-collusion restrictions from March 29 to April 3, meaning that a serious meeting during the CTIA conference could not happen, and the players, whom I believe are willing to come together to make this system work, were not permitted to talk to each other. In fact, I believe that if the anti-collusion requirements had been waived for the D block during the auction, the outcome would have been very different and we would have a winner today.


This meeting could have changed what will happen with the D block and I am sure everyone has his or her own idea of how it would have unfolded. But it did not happen. It should have, and if I had been in attendance, I would have been very vocal about what I believe needs to be done. 


Had there been such a meeting, I would have proposed the following:

  • That the  D block go back out to bid with no anti-collusion  restriction
  • That an agreement be put in place prior to the bidding (see below)
  • That bidders would be network management companies rather than commercial network operators-the winner would coordinate the commercial side of the efforts to build and operate the network
  • That the consortium be expanded to include the NRTC and the RCA so rural broadband would be included in the system design from the beginning
  • That all of the U.S. network operators take part in the build-out and be awarded tax credits from the Federal Government, depending on how much of the network they built out
  • That the network be set up to run a common, world standard, 4th-generation technology
  • That the PSST and its representatives would only have to deal with the network management company, NRTC (RCA) and a representative from Homeland Security, the FCC and the NTIA  

Obviously, there are many more concerns that need to be addressed, but these are the first issues that would need to be sorted out. The politics are more important than the technology if this project is to be successful, and someone with an understanding of both the commercial and first responder worlds needs to help shape the project so it has a chance of succeeding.


What are the benefits of this type of collaboration? Here are a few:
  • The first responder community gets a world-class network in a timely fashion
  • The commercial community gets tax breaks for being part of the system
  • The rural telecommunications organizations get broadband they can sell into homes and
  • businesses and for mobile data services (with voice later)
  • The public gets a break on the cost of this system because costs are shared among a
  • number of companies
  • The systems get built faster because more companies are involved
  • The Federal Government makes money from the auction of the spectrum
  • All of the network operators gain access to a pool of spectrum in areas where they need more data capabilities as their own networks become more congested
  • Perhaps in some areas where demand is lower, a wholesale model is permitted so new companies can become involved in wireless broadband services 

I fully realize that this is an ambitious undertaking and many of you will have already determined that this cannot possibly be done, but I guess I am an optimist because I believe it can be. Yes, there are a number of issues including the fact that network operators carry the value of their spectrum on their books and that spectrum is an important asset to them. How do we handle this and the many other concerns that will have to be resolved? By making sure each of the companies involved knows that it is contributing to the common good, not only for its own customers but for its employees as well.


Can it work? I believe it can. But until such a meeting is convened (in reality, before that meeting) and when one-on-one conversations can take place, we won't know whether this is possible. All we know at the moment is that the FCC would not let it happen during CTIA Wireless 2008 and we lost valuable time. Everyone who needs to be in these meetings was at the show, 700 MHz was fresh on everyone's minds and it should have been easy to hold the first of many meetings.


I hope someone will try to pull this together since I believe the only way a commercial/first responder partnership can happen is for commercial entities to work together for the common good. Is that too much to ask?


Someone needs to step up to the line and kick things off. I would welcome the challenge of coordinating these efforts and being a go-between for the entities involved. Who wants to step up first?  Pick up the ball and let's go for it!
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Andrew M. Seybold

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