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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?

What Might Have Been

Tuesday, 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-manythis 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 Statesnot 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.



COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

Chris Coles - 05/14/2008 04:23:55


Sprint has intrigued me ever since 2001/2 when I was in face to face conversations with engineers that were really enthusiastic, but, when,just afterwards, the company ran into short term money problems, the engineers seemed to be all jumping out of the windows and acting as though, suddenly, their jobs were on the line. No one ever came back. I was left with the impression that somewhere within the company there is what I will describe as a culture of fear of being seen to be thinking outside of the box. That new thinking is suppressed as a part of the overall culture. Your detailed analysis of the D block auction is to my mind just another example of the same thing.

I have a question with regard to one to many transmission. First responder communications always are predicated upon one to many transmission. But, from the outset, commercial wireless networks have had to work on exactly the opposite basis, they needed to be able to differentiate every single subscriber on a one to one basis. However, I am surely correct to surmise that in fact, if I ring any single number, the system puts out that request to find the single number to the whole network? Surely it is possible to have a group of numbers all the same? That you can set up a system that allows any number of conventional, normally differently numbered wireless telephones - to talk to each other?

That it is only the PERCEPTION that a commercial network must always operate one to one that stops any such network running a one to many system? Yes, I can see that there will be difficulties with the back office functions. But also, surely, that such difficulties can be overcome if the will is there to try. That if this were possible, then the whole basis of the first responder technology would change to a low cost handset that would revolutionise the entire concept of first responder communications.

I would be grateful for your opinion.

Andrew Seybold - 05/14/2008 07:36:46

Chris--thanks, as usual, for your comments--let me see if I can answer your question--first of all we are not talking about "ringing a phone" here, we are talking about radios in vehicles and on people which are always on and always tuned to a specfic (dispatch) channel during normal work hours. The calls that are dispatched are designed to be heard by the car or person that is being assigned to the call, thier supervisor, and any and all field people around them. These calls happen all of the time and the cops in the field, if we are talking police here, have their radios on and when a call is received on that channel everyone tuned to that channel hears the call--they don't have to "answer" a ringing phone, they just get the call--in many instances the radio is on but softly as they go about thier day-to-day business. Yet, when a call is dispatched they hear it because they are trained to--if it is for them, the respond and take the call, if it is not for them they either go back in listen mode or, if the call is close and could be dangerous to an officier--domestic for example, other units who have heard the call will move closer to the incident in case they are needed. The shift supervisor or sargent may authorize a Code 2 or code 3 response based upon the type of incident and everyone works as a team--when the officier arrives at the scene he or she gives a first report and if others are needed they can respond already knowing what the circumstances are.

In the fire and EMS services one-to-many is just as important perhaps more so, because incoming equipment is giving orders by the incident commander so thtey know what their assignments are and other equipment responding to the scene can be prepared for what ever the situation is.

Hope this helps--yes Commerical networks could probably do this, we would need different types of radio equipment (not handsets) but walkie-talkies and vehicle mount radios, but I suppose it could be done.


Chris Coles - 05/14/2008 08:11:20


You misunderstood me, perhaps I did not phrase the question correctly, let me try again. I already knew about the one to many and how it works having purchased such a setup for a previous business way back in the 1970's.. No, my question relates to the way we USE A CONVENTIONAL consumer wireless telephone. The sort you and I carry in our pockets.

When I call you, I dial in your number for your wireless phone and the system, regardless of the network, Verizon, AT&T, whomever, sends out a general call that will only trigger a response from your particular phone. BUT I reason that the only reason only your phone responds is that the trigger is digital and that digital address is particular to your phone number. However, the digital trigger is sent out generally across the network.

I am asking what if you configure any phone to do two things;

1. accept a trigger that has also at one and the same time been sent to another phone that can also accept that trigger. (The other phone has the same trigger).

2. automatically, turns itself on and broadcasts the incoming message. (In fact, with a revised hand held, it could be fitted with a larger battery and be always on anyway. In that case, you do not get a ring tone, but instead just hear whatever the incoming message is and can respond back in the same fashion).

It seems to me that the only thing preventing the use of a consumer version of a hand held wireless telephone is that we have always PERCEIVED that it always has to work the way it does because that is the way it has to work for a single subscriber to a single subscriber call.

That if we want to, we can instead configure the single number system to send the required trigger, (that activates the system of the users phone), to as many other similarly configured phones as well. That all we need to do is change our perception of what is possible and then get on and do it.

If I am correct, then any network could be set up to sell, say, 100 handsets to, say, New York Fire Brigade, all with a single trigger number that would respond to that single request, the same trigger. In fact the system does not do anything differently when dispatch wants to call those handsets all together, the system accepts a message configured for one trigger number, but that 100 can all hear the same message because they all have the same trigger and as such the message sent to everyone at the same time.

It seems to me we are all so focused upon the fact that we use a single phone number for a single subscriber, we have forgotten that we could have as many phones with the same number as we would wish.

Laurie Lamberth - 05/14/2008 09:54:30


Sprint simply could not have bid on the public safety D Block. Their debt was downgraded to junk bond status yesterday, their access to capital is severely impaired both by their rating and by their poor financial performance, and they are managing three unruly networks already. They simply don't have the financial or operational capacity to take on this monster.

Plus the public-private nature of the spectrum is problematic. Who would want to 'buy" an asset that they cant' fully control, but for which they will be held fully responsible for any outcomes -- including those created by parties not under their control? That's not a baseless fear: the FCC's ruling last week not to give Sprint more time for the 700 mHz rebanding is exactly that soft of problem. Sprint claims that they are behind schedule because of the public safety agencies currently operating on the spectrum have not done their part to vacate it, yet the FCC is going levy sizeable fines and force Sprint to shut down the offending parts of their network. Why would any carrier want to get themselves into another similar, bigger, and bigger headlined mess?

My belief is that a broader discussion is needed on how to put together a "first responder network," and what that network would do. I never imagined, for instance, that the PS D-Block network would not support voice from the start. The discussion needs to include public safety agencies (national, regional and local), carriers, Homeland Security, lawmakers, and the public (to the extent they are willing to participate).

Let's hear more about what needs to be done to ensure proper returns to the capital, and protect the investors from the actions or inactions of others, in order to make the PS D-Block proposal work. Without a reasonable profit margin and operational freedom to run the network effectively, no carrier can afford to be "giving something back to the citizens of the United States"

Wishing things were different won't change anything.
Thanks for your thought-provoking commentary, as usual.

-- Laurie Lamberth

Andrew Seybold - 05/15/2008 08:37:46

Laurie--you are, of course, correct that Sprint does not have he backing from a financial point of view--and the other comments you make are correct as well, as for voice, perhaps VoIP and PTT will be part of it from the start but I would not bet on it, instead It think that it will start as a common network for data and evolve--and I don't for one minute, that this even with PTT and VoIP it will replace today's dispatch and teh 700 MHz narrow band channels, but I do think that it will help, but not crure, command and control interoperability as opposed to "at the scene, on the ground" interoperability.

David Boettger - 05/16/2008 19:49:08

All of this begs the question: Why do first responders need their own network at all? If the argument is that first responders' calls *must* go through when they are placed (perfectly valid), that's really not good enough. Technology exists -- and has existed for years -- to ensure that first responders get priority access to bandwidth. And who better to ensure coverage and performance of the first responder network than an entity which has a commercial motivation to do so?

Further, first responders initially would have at the luxury of fully-redundant coverage and networking by utilizing handsets which select AT&T, T-Mobile, or any available 3GPP carrier depending on which signal is strongest. (This already happens with 3GPP handsets, as anybody who has roamed overseas knows.) And once Verizon and the rest of the CDMA carriers get their acts together and switch to 3GPP technology, first responders would have N-way redundancy. In Manhattan, that would be something like quintuple redundancy. It's statistically impossible for a single, dedicated network to be as reliable.

And if it were discovered that certain areas lacked coverage because the commercial carriers don't have a lot of customers there, then the first responders could pay the carriers to add coverage. This would be hugely cheaper than building dedicated network.

The true anachronism is the perceived need to have a private, first responder-only network.

Andrew Seybold - 05/22/2008 19:22:32

David--I read your post the first day you posted it and have been trying to figure out how to post an answer to your comments. First of all, it is clear that you do not understand first responder's needs--not wants, needs, one-to-many communications (voice) is their life-blood, off network communications is vital (peer-to-peer) or as it is known in the First Responder world- simplex--so I challenge you, if you live in Manhatten or where ever you live, send me an address and I will send you a scanner which will let you listen to the local police and fire channels, not just the dispatch channels but the operations channels as well, listen on a Friday and Sat night and then tell me if you think that they don't need their own networks.