The Federal Communications Commission took the first steps May 14 to untangle its complicated, controversial and ultimately failed plan to launch a nationwide interoperable broadband network for public safety agencies. The solution? Start over again at square one with public comments.
In July 2007, as part of the FCC's rules for the 700MHz auction, it decided to create a public-private partnership by dedicating a 10MHz block to be paired with the 24MHz already dedicated to public safety. No takers stepped up to meet the minimum $1.3 billion reserve price.
"While I continue to support the concept of a public safety-private partnership as a viable tool to achieve this goal, I am pleased that [the request for public comment] turns a critical eye on the specific parameters of the partnership," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a statement.
Martin said he is seeking to more clearly define the role of the public safety broadband licensee, as well as ask questions about who would constitute a public safety user, the appropriate role of advisors and whether increased oversight is necessary.
On the commercial side of the proposed partnership, the FCC is seeking comments to more clearly define expectations about build-out issues, default penalties and network parameters to allow potential bidders to create a business model.
The FCC is also seeking comment on how the commercial side of the spectrum should be auctioned and licensed if it were not required to be part of a public-private partnership. The agency is requesting input on other ways to facilitate the deployment of a public safety broadband network if such a partnership were found to no longer be in the public interest.
Frontline Wireless made a big splash in 2007 with its proposal to build a public-private network. But weeks before the auction began, it pulled the plug on the plan and closed its doors, reportedly because it couldn't raise the money for the venture.
Rumors began to surface shortly after the auction that Cyren Call, a company organized by Nextel co-founder Morgan O'Brien to serve as the agent for the public safety spectrum, wanted a front-loaded $500 million lease agreement.
O'Brien vehemently denied this and a subsequent investigation by the FCC's inspector general cleared Cyren Call of influencing the auction outcome. Instead, the investigation concluded, factors such as build-out costs led to the failure to attract bidders.
"What we are trying to do here is conduct the most difficult FCC auction ever in an extraordinarily difficult economic environment," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement. "At the same time, I do know with 100 percent certainty that if we give any less than the full measure of our efforts, the result will assuredly be that the needs of public safety will continue to go unmet."
The Public Interest Spectrum Coalition praised the FCC for re-evaluating the entire process.
"From what we know now, the Commission is asking the right questions in its policy if it chooses to use the spectrum for a public-private partnership for public safety," the group said in a statement. "The details of the business relationships between public safety and private-sector companies should have been examined much earlier, and it is appropriate that they will be now."