Verizon: Don't give AT&T $14B worth of 4.9GHz spectrum

The FCC is considering how best to administer spectrum in the 4.9GHz band for public safety. One proposal would have FirstNet – an AT&T partner – do the job. But Verizon isn't down for that.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

June 17, 2024

4 Min Read
picture of a Police officer and police line do not cross

Verizon officials this week pleaded with federal regulators to withhold 50MHz of spectrum in the 4.9GHz band from FirstNet, arguing that giving the spectrum to the agency would amount to a $14 billion gift to AT&T.

"A giveaway that would advantage a single provider, and one with no competitive process, would undermine the competitive wireless marketplace and US spectrum policy," Verizon wrote to the FCC this week. The company instead suggested an auction.

Verizon's new filing details meetings between Verizon's top lobbyists and officials across the FCC, including those in its Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. In those meetings, Verizon's officials made it clear they're worried that AT&T, with 4.9GHz spectrum, could gain a competitive advantage against Verizon in the market for public safety wireless connections.

"Like AT&T's FirstNet service, Verizon Frontline provides first responders with access to all of Verizon's commercial spectrum bands, and, like AT&T's FirstNet service, Verizon Frontline provides first responder customers with priority and preemption," the company wrote. "Other wireless providers compete every day in the first responder service marketplace. There is no reason to gift valuable mid-band spectrum to one competitor over others."

According to Verizon, the Brattle Group recently valued the 50MHz of spectrum in the 4.9GHz band at over $14 billion.

"With little new spectrum on the horizon, carriers are looking at all kinds of options to gain a spectrum advantage over their competitors," wrote Blair Levin, a policy adviser to New Street Research and a former high-level FCC official, in a note to investors in April.

Spectrum for public safety

As noted by Urgent Communications, the FCC in 2003 allocated 50MHz of nationwide spectrum in the 4.9GHz band to public safety, which has used the airwaves to support a variety of use cases, from point-to-point backhaul to ad-hoc mesh-networking solutions. However, last year the FCC established a more coordinated, nationwide approach to managing the band. It also considered the prospect of a band manager to administer operations in the band.

One proposal on the table is for FirstNet to be that band manager.

FirstNet is a federal entity charged with building a nationwide wireless network for public safety agencies, including police, firefighters and others, using around $6.5 billion and 20MHz of unused spectrum in the 700MHz band. The effort stems from communications troubles first responders encountered following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.

AT&T won the FirstNet contract in 2017 and pledged to construct a network using the spectrum within five years. It finished that first round of work last year by installing FirstNet 700MHz transmitters on its existing cell tower sites. Today FirstNet counts roughly 5.5 million connections across around 27,500 public safety agencies.

And the AT&T-FirstNet relationship is poised to continue: Earlier this year, FirstNet announced a budget for 2024 of $547 million, cash that will "ensure responders have full access to new and emerging 5G capabilities with unique FirstNet services and applications."

The debate

The Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA) has been arguing for years that the FCC should "unlock the 4.9GHz band's 5G potential for the public safety community" by passing it to FirstNet. The PSSA is fronted by Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association and former vice chairman of FirstNet.

The National Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs are among those that support the PSSA's position.

But others reject the notion of giving AT&T more spectrum through FirstNet.

"Giving the 4.9GHz band to AT&T to serve public safety and commercial customers would disrupt the wireless marketplace. As a policy matter, it is unsound," wrote the Coalition for Emergency Response and Critical Infrastructure (CERCI).

As noted by Fierce Network, T-Mobile, Verizon and UScellular are among the founding members of the CERCI. Other founding members are the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), National Sheriffs Association, Major Cities Chiefs Association and Edison Electric Institute.

Others agree with CERCI.

"The wholesale licensing or leasing of this band to FirstNet and, therefore, to AT&T for integration into its commercial, consumer-focused network (or an arrangement that accomplishes the same end under a thinly veiled 'shared use' nomenclature), would be antithetical to the FCC's locally controlled public safety primacy commitment," wrote CERCI along with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the 4.9 GHz Coalition.

The 4.9 GHz Coalition's membership includes: American Petroleum Institute, Enterprise Wireless Alliance, Forestry Conservation Communications Association, International Municipal Signal Association, National Sheriffs' Association, and Utilities Technology Council.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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