The wireless data equivalent of beachfront property will come available in 2009 and the FCC must decide what to do with it

October 4, 2006

4 Min Read
What Will Play in the 700 MHz Band?

Will the spectrum carrying today's TV signals soon be used for a superfast wireless broadband network?

It's possible. And the FCC is now listening to several parties who are proposing plans for the use of the 700 MHz wireless spectrum band that will be available in 2009.

The 700 MHz spectrum is now used by broadcasters to help transition to digital television, but it will be turned back over to the FCC in 2009. Some of it, 24 MHz, has already been reserved for use in public safety networks, while the rest (36 MHz) is set to be auctioned off for commercial use.

Some public safety organizations say the promised 24 MHz is no longer enough. Emergency first responders, too, have entered the broadband age, and they need wireless broadband to deliver video content, GPS and mapping information, and real time communications to the scene of an emergency. (See Wireless Win for NFL.)

One high-profile proposal comes from the National Capital Region (NCR), an organization of public safety agencies from D.C. and surrounding Virginia and Maryland counties. The NCR is trying to reserve some of the 700 MHz band for use in a new "regional, interoperable institutional fiber and wireless network" it's calling NCRnet. NCR says the new network would deliver an aggregate throughput of more than 352 Mbit/s.

The NCR's plan was recently given a positive review by the General Accounting Office (GAO), which may put more political steam behind it. The GAO said in its report last Thursday that the plan “provides the basic foundation for regional preparedness, including what is needed in case of a catastrophic event.”

A small company called Cyren Call Communications Corp. submitted its own plan in April, proposing a nationwide network that would be shared by public safety agencies and commercial wireless carriers. The two would share the 36 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum that is now scheduled for auction, with public safety agencies using the extra 36 MHz of spectrum only during emergencies. The costs of building the network would be shared between commercial and public safety entities. (See Cyren Call, M2Z Still Waiting on the FCC .)

At the moment, Cyren Call's sole function is as an advocacy and lobbying organization, according to spokesman Adam Kovacevich. The company is trying to convince Congress and the FCC that none of the 700 MHz band should be auctioned off for commercial use in 2009. The company would get involved in an actual network build once the necessary spectrum is secured.

Other proposals would reorganize the 700 MHz band for broadband networks, but would use only the 24 MHz already allocated for public safety use. Examples of these plans come from the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) , and Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU)

FCC spokesperson Robert Kenny said he couldn't comment on which type of plan the Commission is more likely to eventually accept.

Public and commercial entities have already filed scores of comments about the various plans with the FCC. T-Mobile US Inc. , for instance, favors sticking with the existing plan for the 700 MHz band. Motorola is OK with some changes to the band, but asks that the FCC not reduce the size of existing spectrum blocks, according to filed comments. Motorola notes in its brief that it serves both the commercial and public safety wireless markets. (See T-Mobile Bids $4.2B.)

The Commission issued its request for comment on the 700 MHz issue in March. At the request of CTIA , Pegasus Wireless Corp. , and Access Spectrum, it recently extended the deadline for comments by a month to October 20. The petitioners argued that the original deadline was too close to the end of the FCC's 66th spectrum auction. (See Big Guns Dominate Spectrum Auction.)

The CTIA, by the way, may enter its own proposal for a nation-wide public safety broadband network using the 700 MHz band. This proposal would compete directly with the Cyren Call plan. CTIA spokespeople did not return calls by deadline.

Public safety and law enforcement agencies around the Capital have long argued that a high-powered wireless broadband network could dramatically improve emergency response to events like the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. The issue, of course, is infused with a certain amount of emotionalism; the efforts of first responders during 9/11 and Katrina are often mentioned in the debate.

The movement toward a public safety wireless broadband network began in Congress after 9/11. Under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the FCC is required to study the "short-term and long-term spectrum needs" of emergency responders. Those needs have grown as wireless broadband applications become "must-haves" for first responders.

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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