House Panel Bird-Dogging 700MHz Auction

A lawmaker pledges quick action if the minimum bid is not met in the public safety portion of the spectrum auction. 

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey's Telecommunications and Internet subcommittee is prepared to move quickly if the public safety portion of the Federal Communications Commission's 700MHz auction fails to meet its milestones.

The so-called D Block is dedicated to an interoperable public/private network with priority for first responders. The idea is for private enterprise to partner with public safety officials to build a national network based on open network principles. The minimum bid price is $1.6 billion.

Through Jan. 28, though, bidding on D Block has reached a disappointing $472 million. If the minimum bid price is not met, the FCC will set another auction with a lower price and, quite possibly, no open network requirements.

Bidding for the spectrum is expected to continue for at least six more weeks.

"Initial reports of lagging interest thus far in the ... D Block license, a commercial wireless opportunity with a unique public safety mission, is discouraging," Markey, D-Mass., said at a hearing Jan. 29. "The auction is obviously not over yet and it is still possible for successful auction of the D Block license."

Just days before the 700MHz auction began on Jan. 24, Frontline Wireless, one of the chief champions of the public/private public safety auction plan, dropped out, unable to secure adequate financing for the project.

Led by industry veterans and public policy leaders, Frontline's proposal called for carving out 10MHz of the 60MHz up for auction in the D Block and then combining that block with the 24MHz already dedicated to a public safety network. First-responders would have priority access to the network in national emergencies.

Frontline Wireless was founded with high hopes by Janice Obuchowski, former head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration under President George H.W. Bush; Haynes Griffin, the founder of Vanguard Cellular; and Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman. The company's financial backers include former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, venture capitalists John Doerr and Ram Shriram, and software radio technology innovator Vanu Bose.

"If the auction ends and the D Block has not met its reserve price, the subcommittee will actively review the parameters of that auction, including an assessment of its various conditions, the reserve price and the structure of the public safety trust," Markey said. "I am eager to see the extent to which the auction actually results in the introduction of new competitors into the marketplace in different regions around the country as well as the advent of new wireless services, devices and applications."

In the most closely watched segment of the auction, the C Block dedicated to a national open wireless network, bidding had reached $3.3 billion on Jan. 29. The minimum reserve price is $4.6 billion, which Google has pledged to meet. Pre-auction favorites AT&T and Verizon are also prepared to meet the minimum bid price, and then some.

The winner of the so-called "beachfront" spectrum -- its signals can travel great distances and penetrate walls and mountains -- in the C Block will not be known for weeks. The FCC will post the leading bid amounts daily but will not disclose the names of the bidders. Anti-collusion rules also prohibit any bidder from discussing the auction.

"It would be my intention, should events at the auction require it, to work closely with FCC Chairman [Kevin] Martin and his colleagues to develop a plan for re-auctioning these frequencies in a way that will foster new wireless competition and enhance interoperable, public safety communications across the country," Markey said.