A Public-Private Partnership on the Airwaves

The FCC's decision for joint control of a portion of the spectrum could make government ownership affordable.

Kentucky may be leading the nation in technology.

At least, it has become the most improved state from 2004 to 2007, where its rank leapt from No. 44 to fourth in a nationwide study to evaluate public access to state and federal services. The study was conducted by Brown University.

Kentuckys success stems from a private-public partnership, a joint venture between private industry and public government, which implemented $650 million in invested capital.

According to Mark McElroy, ConnectKentuckys vice president for communications and operations, this partnership has managed to increase "computer literacy and ownership at the household level." In 2004, broadband covered 60 percent of all homes in Kentucky. As of mid-2007, 93 percent of all homes are served.

FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate referred to ConnectKentuckys success in the spectrum auction rules meeting July 31. In fact, it was a key element of an FCC decision on the rules for the spectrum auction: Chairman Kevin J. Martin announced that the upper portion of the 700MHz spectrum—the "D Block"—will be used by first respondents during emergencies and will be shared with private companies.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about Googles interest in the spectrum auction.

This joint ownership could solve the problem of how the government can affordably use spectrum for emergency services.

Art Brodsky, communications director of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based advocacy group with a focus on information technology, said that licenses to use the airwaves will cost billions of dollars. Rather than have "the government pay for it all and have a dedicated network for public safety … youd have the private sector footing the bill to get access to spectrum." Private companies will use the spectrum, but will relinquish control during emergencies.

At the spectrum rules meeting, Arlington County, Va., Police Chief Doug Scott and Fire Chief Jim Schwartz testified how important communications are to emergency rescue and medical crews. Uncoordinated responses after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have also demonstrated that communication between groups is necessary to save lives.

But the government has yet to institute a national standard for emergency response teams. As such, cities and towns across the United States each use their own radio channels for emergency services, and none of them are coordinated.

Martins decision was adopted from a proposal made by Greensboro, N.C.-based Frontline Wireless, a team of entrepreneurs and former government policy makers dedicated to building out "a wireless fourth-generation IP broadband network that could serve both the commercial and public safety communities with an open IP network," said Stagg Neuman, former chief technology officer of the FCC and Frontlines chief technologist.

Although transfer of the spectrum from private to public use should be seamless, there are no set rules for how the spectrum will be shared: The winner of the spectrum license will ultimately have control over the network.

Newman said this shouldnt be a problem. "We have things like 911 service, which ride over top the normal telephone network, in the highway infrastructure. We have roads are shared by commercial and private users," he said.

Short of the federal government having sole control of the D Block for use in emergencies, this public-private partnership may provide local and federal authorities the communications pipe they need, without having to pay for it.

The spectrum will go up for auction Jan. 28, 2008.

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