Rockefeller deals blow to FCC proposal

Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) may have dealt a significant setback to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Wednesday when he announced that he will introduce a bill creating a nationwide broadband network for first responders.

The FCC shares the goal, but has spent considerable energy this year defending a proposal of its own, which differs from Rockefeller’s on a major point: whether to auction off a valuable chunk of spectrum known as the D-block.

The FCC proposed this auction, and says the proceeds will fund a public safety broadband network that allows police and firemen all over the country to connect on wireless devices during emergencies. But in what could be a setback for the FCC proposal, Rockefeller declined to support a D-block auction in the plan he announced on Wednesday.

Auctioning the D-block to commercial providers became controversial this year after first responder groups pushed back on the idea. Public Safety Alliance (PSA), a coalition of first responder groups, says the D-block must instead be directly controlled by police and firemen groups.

PSA hailed Rockefeller’s proposal on Wednesday evening. “We ... look forward to working with him and his colleagues to secure the spectrum and funding public safety professionals need to ensure the safety of our nation’s citizens, residents and visitors,” said Paul Fitzgerald, an Iowa sheriff and PSA representative.

Rockefeller’s proposal was a letdown for small- and medium-sized broadband carriers such as T-Mobile, which believed the FCC proposal would foster more competition for providing service in the D-block. 

AT&T and Verizon may have a leg-up in bids to lease the spectrum from public safety groups since they already operate within the spectrum in question, according to telecom analysts. 

T-Mobile’s vice president for government affairs Tom Sugrue said on Wednesday that the company is “disappointed” with Rockefeller’s announcement. 

“With the exception of AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile and other wireless carriers agree with the FCC that the best way to build public safety the national network it needs in all of America is through the auction of the D-block to commercial users,” Sugrue said in a statement. 

AT&T and Verizon were each quick to praise Rockefeller’s proposal. Both companies provide funding for the Public Safety Alliance.

“Spectrum is a scarce and valuable national commodity, but we are encouraged by Senator Rockefeller’s action today that public safety will have sufficient resources to support a nationwide wireless broadband network,” Tim McKone, AT&T’s executive vice president for federal relations, said on the company’s blog on Wednesday.

Until Rockefeller made his announcement, it had looked like the FCC plan was gaining momentum. A proposal from House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) lined up with major points with the FCC’s plan.

And when President Obama signed an executive order last month committing the federal government to freeing up more spectrum for wireless broadband, the White House emphasized commercial auctions and made no overtures to the groups who want the D-Block devoted to first responders. 

Lawrence Summers, the White House National Economic Council director, said at the time that auctions — rather than government-directed allocations — lead to the most efficient use of the spectrum.

A senior FCC official said the agency is reviewing Rockefeller’s legislation.

The agency has contended for months that its plan, which could cost as much as $16 billion, is equally effective and more cost-friendly than giving the D-Block directly to first responders.

The agency has noted that its network will be built as wireless providers roll out their 4G networks, making it unnecessary to duplicate those resources. “Let’s have one truck go out, not two,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at a hearing in June.

In its campaign to promote the plan, the agency has picked up some meaningful endorsements, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, a group of more than 325,000 law enforcement officers. Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, also endorsed the plan.

Rockefeller was not the first voice on Capitol Hill to oppose the D-block auction, though as the head of the commerce panel, he may be the most significant one to date. 

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, introduced legislation earlier this year to stop the D-block auction.

King, like PSA, argues that a public safety network reliant on commercial carriers, such as the one proposed by the FCC, could break down in times of crisis when calls would flood the network.

Calling the D-Block “ideal” for a public safety network, King said such a network is needed during “large-scale emergencies, such as a terrorist attack.” 

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) announced companion legislation on Wednesday.