What Might Have BeenTuesday, May 13, 2008
What if Sprint had shown up at the 700-MHz auction, won the D block and committed to work with first responders on both the new network and its existing iDEN (Nextel) network?
For the past few months, I have been absorbed with, among other things, the first responder/public network that was supposed to have come out of the 700-MHz D block auction. There has been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking about why the spectrum was not won at auction, why Qualcomm was the only bidder and bid well below the reserve price, what it was, exactly, that kept Verizon and AT&T from bidding on it and even why Frontline could not raise the money to stay in the bidding.
The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held hearings and came up with some “findings,” the FCC Commissioners have done some soul searching and even the FCC’s Office of Inspector General got into the act with an investigation into the failed auction and a number of related issues. They gave the proceedings a clean bill of health and recapped the many reasons existing network operators did not bid on this spectrum. And hundreds of articles were written after the fact, including a few by me.
If you follow my writings on this subject, you know I favor a new auction, but limited to system management companies that would work with the network operators to build a network that could be truly shared. This would work nicely from a technology point of view, but there are a lot of politics involved that would need to be sorted out.
We will next hear from the FCC on May 14 about the D block and then there will be a short period of time for comments and suggestions to be filed. I am sure the FCC will be inundated with comments and ideas, many of which will have merit. At this point, the FCC can punt this ball into the next administration’s court, go back out to bid with some of the restrictions removed or any number of other options. What I worry about is that it could decouple the D block from the first responder spectrum. This would all but ensure that first responders don’t end up with a nationwide network, and it would give someone else an opportunity to bid on a nationwide swath of 700-MHz spectrum. While it’s only 10 MHz (5X5) to be sure, as an adjunct to existing spectrum, without the encumbrance of the first responder network, it could be worth perhaps $4 Billion at auction.
However, there are some issues with this scenario. I imagine that the bidders from the last auction would certainly have something to say about this slice of spectrum coming back to auction unencumbered by first responder requirements after they already spent billions for their own slices of 700 MHz. I suspect it would get messy and that things might end up in court. Meanwhile, first responders and, therefore, all of us, would end up losers.
I still like my consortium approach the best, and I sent a letter to the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet as well as all of the FCC Commissioners outlining my plan in detail. While I was considering Sprint, Nextel and Clearwire, I wondered, “What if Sprint had done some things differently? What if it had entered the 700-MHz auction?”
First, let me make it clear that the 700-MHz D block/first responder network, if built, will take a long time if built by a single vendor. Second, it won’t be about voice for a while, and when it is about voice, it won’t be about first responder dispatch or on-the-scene communications. It will be about central coordination of resources and needs assessment. In other words, it will start out as data-only network and will be used for routine data services and, later, push-to-talk. I think many people still don’t understand that first responder communications is about voice and that voice needs to be one-to-many—this is not going to change. So the 700-MHz spectrum build-out will only solve a portion of the interoperability problem, not the day-to-day mutual aid situations that are ongoing across the country—but I digress.
Had I been Sprint, prior to the first auction, I would have talked to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust and the Feds and I would have proposed that if I won the bid, the network for interoperability would not only be made up of the 700-MHz new system, it would be integrated with the Nextel system that is already used by many first responders on a secondary communications basis and for some interoperability. I could have won the auction and put the two networks together as part of a nationwide plan to provide voice today while the 700-MHz network was being deployed, and provide equipment for first responders that would operate on both the Nextel system and the new 700-MHz system.
Sprint would have gained a nationwide footprint at 700 MHz, which would greatly improve its coverage for its primary CDMA network that is at 1900 MHz, first responders would have a voice network that handles push-to-talk in many areas and it could then encourage first responders to use both the Nextel network for voice and the existing Sprint network for data services as the new network was brought up. Then it could migrate first responders to the 700-MHz network for data while keeping them on Nextel for voice.
The risk I see to first responders had this happened, is that some of Sprint’s partners would surely be pushing Sprint into a WiMAX, open access play on the 700-MHz D block. I can see Intel and Google investing heavily in this network, which would help first responders in getting the network built, but deploying WiMAX would be a disservice to them for sure. Why? Because one of the main thrusts of this shared network is to put first responders into a position where they can use mainstream communications products that should cost less than the equipment they now use. Further, first responders should be able to make use of the commercial broadband networks already in service and transition to the new 700-MHz spectrum as the network is built. This also means, at least to me, that many first responders will be making use of both the new 700-MHz spectrum and existing broadband data services at 850 MHz and 1900 MHz as the network expands, probably for a number of years. Adding WiMAX to this mix would make it much more difficult to coordinate this type of access across multiple networks in various stages of build-out.
This same scenario will be true for any network that is built out—it won’t be built out and suddenly turned on nationwide. It will evolve over time, and it should be built out with careful planning and perhaps piecemeal for the first couple of years—that is, in high risk areas first and filling in other cities in less dense areas over time. In any event, this means a technology that is in common use today and available on a worldwide basis, with a sufficient volume of devices in commercial wireless service that chipsets and device prices are reasonable and modifications required for first responder use can be made at little additional cost.
If, for example, data devices for first responders could be equipped with a chipset such as Gobi that already supports GSM/UMTS/HSPA, CDMA and CDMA EV-DO Rev 0 and Rev A on all of the frequency bands already in commercial use here and around the world. It will have 700 MHz and LTE or UMB capabilities when the band and the technologies are ready. A single device could be used on a nationwide basis today and upgraded for the new network tomorrow. Well in advance of the network build-out, we could have a nationwide system that could be put together with special roaming agreements for first responders that keep their costs to a minimum.
Voice and data roaming are a good source of revenue for network operators around the world. However, since we are talking about 3 million first responders and perhaps another 3 million of what I classify as support staff for first responders, I would think our network operators could come together and agree on a network sharing plan that would keep the costs to the various agencies the same on a monthly basis, even if they used one network as their primary network and the next day had to leave their prime area and respond to an incident where another network had better coverage.
But Sprint did not show up at the auction, and while there will be another one before the end of the year, I believe, I don’t think it will show up for that one either. In fact, if we don’t come up with a series of creative solutions, no one is liable to show up. AT&T and Verizon got a lot of what they wanted, perhaps all of it at 700 MHz, and they both have enough spectrum at 700 MHz to augment their existing spectrum holdings and move into 4G with a new network segment, from the ground up, while making use of existing cell sites, backhaul and infrastructure.
Right now we have 20 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum sitting out there—5X5 making up the D block and 5X5 for public safety services (a license held by the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST)). My belief is that even if every first responder and support personnel started using this network, all 6 million of them, in normal times in most of the United States, 80% of the total capacity of this network would be available for commercial services. That is a lot of capacity for a company or companies with existing networks in place. It is also a great swath of spectrum on which to build a “true” 4G system using LTE or UMB, and to serve rural America with broadband to the home and office. It would be the least expensive way to take broadband to rural America, add some revenue to the network and meet the FCC’s build-out requirements.
I think Sprint is in too much disarray to try to put this together prior to the next auction, and I am not sure how its stockholders would feel about committing another $8 to $10 billion to buy this spectrum and build this network with all that is happening. I think Sprint missed its window of opportunity because it was fixated on another technology in another frequency band and not paying attention.
Let’s see if the FCC can fix what it broke this time around. I hope it can be fixed, but I am not sure those who already have what they need in the way of 700-MHz spectrum would stand up to be counted in a consortium of players unless they felt that by doing so they would be giving something back to the citizens of the United States—not the government, but the citizens who rely on our first responders every day. The next month or will be exciting and you and I will be reading about a lot of ideas to get this project back on track. And somewhere in one, or perhaps a combination of several ideas, I hope there is an answer that will make this venture work. If it does not, our first responders will continue to live in the 20th century instead of being invited to join the rest of us in the 21st century.
Andrew M. Seybold.