Public-safety-commercial partnerships already in the works

Last week Frontline Wireless closed its doors, leaving plans for a nationwide high-speed public-safety network in the 700 MHz band in question. It was believed Frontline was the only entity that wanted to bid on the D-block spectrum and create a private-public partnership that would be used to carry both commercial and priority public-safety related traffic.

"With the recent press reports regarding Frontline's implosion as a viable bidder, concerns among FCC and public safety officials are growing over the fate of the D Block and the success of the auction itself. If the reserve price for the D Block is not met, it can be re-auctioned with or without the same rules," wrote Jessica Zufolo, a telecom analyst at Medley Global Advisors.

For its part, the FCC is trying to be optimistic. "We are still hopeful there will be someone who will emerge as being willing to take on this challenge," the commission said in a statement.

Frontline's exit leaves AT&T, Verizon Wireless or some other heavyweight as potential bidders for the D Block. These players haven't been publicly supportive of a public-private partnership model, but then again the spectrum is relatively cheap compared with the rest of the band. If no one bids, the FCC will be forced to re-auction the spectrum without the mandate to share it with public safety.

Still, what is little known in the mobile industry is the fact that many operators are sharing their networks with public safety today. In fact, operators are finding a successful MVNO model in leasing spectrum for public-safety use.

Rivada Networks is a public-safety MVNO of sorts, signing lease agreements with operators across the country to patch together a system that has the interoperability, redundancy, reliability and broadband services first responders desire and need.

The Louisiana Army National Guard recently signed a contract with Rivada for such a system. That means first responders can use their BlackBerrys or Treos they use on a day-to-day basis for emergency situations as well. Rivada already proved its worth during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in helping to tie in the various jurisdictions that responded to the disaster.

Rivada won't say what operators it has lease agreements with but it's safe to assume Sprint and Verizon Wireless are major players since a lot of the systems incorporate CDMA EV-DO technology.

In some areas, such partnerships with operators have turned into significant win-wins for both the operator and public-safety entity. Rivada has been able to encourage operators to roll out EV-DO Rev. A in places where on a commercial basis it just wouldn't be feasible to do so. However, with guaranteed revenue coming from public safety in these areas, operators are encouraged to roll out services likely many years sooner than anticipated.

"It's guaranteed revenue that way and not bad for a corporate image," notes Bob Duncan, Rivada's senior vice president for government services.

Rivada and others could easily play a similar role in the 700 MHz band. The D Block could indeed become quite attractive to existing wireless players if they play their cards right.--Lynnette