Wireless groups battling over broadband sale rules

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) meets today to discuss preliminary rules for a broadband auction expected to take place early next year that has the wireless industry salivating and could raise $10 to $30 billion for the U.S. Treasury.

In anticipation, an array of interests are battling over the auction’s terms, with some new telecom interests and public-safety groups calling for a portion of the valuable spectrum to be set aside for a broadband public safety network that would make it easier for firefighters, police and others to communicate during an emergency.

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Other players, including Verizon Wireless, want all 60 megahertz (MHz) to be up for bid, but say public-safety groups should have priority access to the commercial spectrum. Verizon has called for a public-safety broadband network to be built using commercial networks and public funds.

Michael Gallagher, a former National Telecommunications and Information Administration director who is now in private practice and represents Verizon, Qwest and other wireless companies, last week told a House telecommunications subcommittee that anything short of a “straightforward, transparent auction” would cause far-reaching negative consequences.

The need for a public-safety broadband network that could help first responders to notify the larger population of dangers has been made clear by a series of calamities, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. It was most recently evident during last week’s tragedy at Virginia Tech, according to Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), the top Republican on the House telecommunications subcommittee.

Lobbying expenses related to the auction are rising. According to Senate records, Cyren Call, which proposed a plan backed by public-safety groups, paid $640,000 in 2006 on lobbying and public relations to Wexler and Walker and the Fritts Group. It added Clark and Weinstock to its team this year.

Verizon Wireless spent $3.22 million on lobbying in 2006, according to Senate records, but such expenses covered a variety of telecommunications issues. Frontline Wireless, a new company with a proposal that appears to have momentum, has registered Covington and Burlington to represent it in Washington, but registered no lobbying expenses in 2006.

Public-safety groups organized under the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council have been lobbying members of Congress to introduce legislation reserving half of the 60 MHz for public safety, but have put those plans on hold in anticipation of FCC signals, according to Harlen McEwen of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
McEwen said House and Senate members were poised to introduce legislation, but acknowledged they faced a questionable future given lobbying by wireless interests. Those plans could be reassessed after the FCC publishes its initial rules, which could happen as early as this week, McEwen said.

Frontline, which is backed by an investment group that includes Google investor K. Ram Shriram, won praise last week from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.). He said it offered “a technologically efficient way to achieve worthwhile policy objectives while preserving an open auction forum.”

Frontline would have the FCC create special rules for the auction of 10 MHz of the total spectrum, which would be used by a commercial licensee to build a public-safety broadband network. Frontline would bid to be that licensee, which would have access to the 10 MHz of spectrum and an additional 12 MHz of spectrum that previously had been reserved for improving voice communications for public safety when not in use for public safety.

Frontline Chairman Janice Obuchowski said Frontline believes statements from Dingell and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who is chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, have built momentum for its proposal, and several telecommunications sources contacted for this story predicted the FCC would ask for comments on parts of Frontline’s ideas, signaling it favors the approach.

Upton, however, said he was skeptical of proposals that would “rig the auction for particular parties.”

Public-safety groups last year endorsed a proposal put forward by Cyren Call, a new venture headed by Nextel co-founder Morgan O’Brien. After the FCC rejected Cyren Call’s proposal to set aside 30 MHz for a public-safety broadband trust, it launched an effort to introduce legislation. But several sources said this would be a daunting task given the fact that most want the auction to begin by January 2008, as currently mandated by Congress.

In an interview, O’Brien said Cyren Call now is waiting for public-safety groups to react to the FCC rules.

Obuchowski said the Cyren Call proposal helped convince public-safety groups of the need for a private-public partnership, but added legislation was unlikely at this point.

However, public-safety groups have not endorsed the Frontline proposal, and criticize it for not creating a network under public-safety control, as Cyren Call proposed. A senior adviser in government relations at the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Alan Caldwell, said the proposal has merit but “is not acceptable in its current form.”

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