FCC's Safety Spectrum May Not Get Buyer

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

A key lawmaker said it was unlikely that a public safety wireless network being auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission will find a buyer before the auction closes.

The block of airwaves would create a nationwide wireless network for fire, police and other emergency responders, to be shared with a commercial enterprise. Public safety officials have cited the need for such a network as critical to respond to incidents such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said yesterday that while other blocks of radio spectrum being auctioned by the FCC have met their reserve prices, the block of airwaves to be used for public safety responders, known as the D Block, has languished.

"We now know that only the D Block may not sell in this auction," Dingell said in a statement. "The construction of a nationwide, next-generation, interoperable broadband network for public safety is a crucial policy objective, and the need for such a network has not diminished."

The public safety airwaves has received only one bid, for $472 million, well below the minimum reserve price of $1.3 billion.

It is one of five blocks of frequencies being auctioned in the 700-megahertz band that will be freed up when analog televisions are converted to digital sets early next year.

Every other block has met minimum reserve bids. The FCC's auction has raised $19.1 billion; the agency's goal had been $10 billion. Most notably, the other nationwide wireless spectrum, called the C Block, will be deployed as an open network, which means any device and software application can operate on it.

Google has pushed for the open network and has said it would bid on the C block. Verizon Wireless and AT&T have also qualified to bid and are widely seen as the only companies able to buy and deploy such a costly network. Because bidding is being conducted anonymously, winners won't be known until all bidding on all licenses is complete and the auction is closed.

In a meeting yesterday with reporters, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin called the auction the most successful in the agency's history and said he didn't have any immediate plans for the D Block.

"I will always continue to be optimistic that someone will take on the burden of working with public safety to resolve these interoperability issues," Martin said. "But if no one steps forward, the commission will have to reevaluate, obviously."

Separately, Martin said he would propose that the agency approve Liberty Media's acquisition of News Corp.'s stake in DirecTV by the agency's next scheduled meeting, on Feb. 26. The acquisition, announced last year, would hand over News Corp.'s 39 percent stake in DirecTV to Liberty Media as part of a stock swap.

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