By Jeffrey Silva
May 12, 2006
WASHINGTON—Law enforcement and first-responder groups asked key Senate lawmakers to consider a private-sector plan to designate a block of spectrum in the 700 MHz band for a national wireless broadband public-safety network, one that would be shared with commercial wireless carriers and include an interoperability capability policy-makers have repeatedly call for—without success—since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.

“We are dedicated to ensuring that public safety has access to the most advanced technology to support those services that meet its stringent requirements to provide safety and security to all Americans. Congress and the [Federal Communications Commission] cannot afford to pass an opportunity to explore the availability of an additional 30 megahertz of spectrum that would meet public safety’s needs as well as elevate the safety of all Americans,” stated the organizations in a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii).

The letter was signed by officials of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Association of Fire Chiefs, Major Cities Chiefs Association, Major County Sheriffs’ Association and National Sheriffs’ Association.

The groups said they are studying the proposal submitted by Cyren Call Communications Inc. to the FCC late last month, and have not decided whether to endorse it. “However,” they stated, “we do believe that the concept of reallocating the 30 megahertz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band in a manner that would promote interoperable, public-safety broadband communications is worthy of public discussion.”

A public debate that could prompt lawmakers to reconsider plans to auction by February 2008 valuable spectrum in the 747-762 MHz and 777-792 MHz bands is precisely what the cell-phone industry wants to avoid.

Mobile-phone carriers are keenly aware of how Cyren Chairman Morgan O’Brien won over policy-makers in the late 1980s when he presented the then-radical idea of cobbling together narrow radio dispatch frequencies to create Nextel Communications Inc. (now part of Sprint Nextel Corp.). Nextel became a competitor to the cellular duopoly at that time. National mobile-phone carrier executives have not forgotten either about Nextel’s successful campaign to remedy interference Nextel caused to 800 MHz radio systems in a way that secured Nextel 10 megahertz of spectrum in the 1.9 GHz band.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House telecom and Internet subcommittee, is the only lawmaker to publicly voice outright opposition to Cyren’s proposal. Upton did so shortly after Cyren submitted its proposal to the FCC on April 27. The Michigan lawmaker argued the plan would disrupt the balance in legislation that forced broadcasters to surrender 700 MHz as part of their transition to digital technology, set aside 24 megahertz for public safety and earmarked $1 billion for public-safety interoperability deployment. The 24 megahertz already reserved for public safety is adjacent to the separate, clear chunk of 30 megahertz at the heart of Cyren’s initiative. The 30 megahertz is potentially worth billions of dollars in auction receipts for the U.S. Treasury. In addition to mobile-phone carriers, wireless Internet and computer firms have expressed interest in the 700 MHz spectrum to drive WiMAX and other wireless broadband technologies.

“While the FCC is currently exploring whether its rules should be modified to permit broadband use in a portion of the 24 megahertz now allotted for wideband use, that will only address a small part of public safety’s future requirements. As we have argued since the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee report of 1996, an additional spectrum allocation is needed,” the six public-safety associations told Stevens and Inouye.

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