700MHz Throwdown Looms

Setting up a potential battle over the upcoming auction by the FCC of wireless spectrum in the 700MHz band, a group of telecom industry veterans, including former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, have formed a company to build a nationwide public-safety network that could also be used by commercial providers, except at times of emergency.

Called Frontline Wireless, the new firm this week submitted a proposal to the FCC "to create an open access, wholesale broadband 4G network serving both public safety users and carriers." That plan clashes with an earlier proposal from Cyren Call Communications Corp. , headed by Nextel founder Morgan O'Brien, to shake up the proposed 700MHz auction and cut the amount being auctioned in half. The other half would go into a "public safety trust" that Cyren Call would use to build a nationwide emergency network. Like Frontline, Cyren Call says it would make money by licensing the spectrum to commercial providers, except when first responders require the network for emergency communications. (See Cyren Call, M2Z Waiting on the FCC .)

Frontline says its plan would not require altering the DTV transition bill of 2005, which set up the 700MHz auction and set aside a portion of the band for public safety communications. (See 700MHz Debate: Safety or Shopping? )

Based in Greensboro, N.C., with an office in Washington, D.C., Frontline is helmed by a trio of telecom bigwigs. Besides Hundt, who will serve as the firm's vice-chairman, the management group includes former National Telecommunications and Information Administration chief Janice Obuchowski and Haynes Griffin, founder of Vanguard Cellular, which he later sold to AT&T Wireless. Griffin is also the past chairman of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, the leading trade group for the wireless industry.

Under the Frontline plan, a group of bidders currently being assembled would acquire for the company a chunk of the 700 MHz spectrum. The company will then construct a "hardened, robust 4G network" based on open standards, which would be available to commercial service providers and would provide users across America, particularly in rural areas, broadband wireless access. Public safety agencies would have automatic access to the commercial network during emergencies.

Saying his company's plan uses a wholesale operating model and nationwide interoperability to combine commercial business opportunities with public safety needs, Frontline's Griffin said in a statement, "Our proposal also allows the benefits of this successful business model to be shared with smaller and rural wireless operators, with a commitment to bring them nationwide roaming as part of ensuring wide coverage deployment for public safety."

While the Frontline venture has the backing of powerful industry and government figures, the alternative plan from Cyren Call has also won support in the nation's capital. Sen. John McCain, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, recently introduced a bill with provisions almost identical to Cyren Call's proposal, filed in April of last year. That proposal would more than double the amount of bandwidth available to public-safety agencies.

Testifying before Congress earlier this month, Cyren Call chairman O'Brien called his plan "the only technologically and financially viable solution" to the need for a commercial-grade broadband wireless network for public safety.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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