Debate over D Block's fate heats up

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) voiced his support for a public-private partnership to create a nationwide broadband network for public-safety use in the D Block of the 700 MHz spectrum band. That plan is favored by an array of public-safety groups as well as AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless, the major winners in last year's 700 MHz spectrum auction. However, a competing proposal supported by T-Mobile USA and other carriers also attracted attention.

Waxman, who is the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a Congressional hearing on the matter that a partnership "would likely offer the clearest path to constructing a nationwide" network, and that Congress needed to revisit the details of the plan. No bidder offered a minimum bid for the D Block, which was supposed to be shared between a commercial licensee and public-safety users. The FCC is currently exploring what to do with the D Block, but has not announced any new plans.

T-Mobile sent a letter to Congress ahead of the hearing--which was called by the Energy and Commerce's subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet--detailing its support for a plan to auction the D Block solely for commercial use, and then use the proceeds to build a network for public safety. In the letter, T-Mobile said such a re-auction could raise between $2 billion and $9 billion, depending upon various factors like licensing rules and the economy. This plan is supported by Leap Wireless, MetroPCS, the Rural Telecommunications Group.

In contrast, AT&T said the D Block should be given directly to the public-safety community on a regional basis and allow them to work with private companies and use it as they see fit to build out their networks. Either proposal will likely require action from Congress. Not surprisingly, AT&T said said that Congress should require LTE be used as the technology for the network (AT&T and Verizon Wireless have plans to upgrade their networks to LTE). Waxman appeared to oppose that action.

"The plan should try to avoid distorting or disrupting the commercial wireless marketplace by giving an unfair advantage to certain carriers over others," he said.

T-Mobile acknowledged that its proposal would not net enough money to fully fund and manage a nationwide network, but noted that a re-auction would "provide a valuable beginning and make the remaining funding challenges more manageable." Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the subcommittee chairman, said that government funding may be needed anyway.

"At the end of the day, we're going to find ourselves looking for some kind of general fund revenues in order to finance this," he said. "I honestly don't know of another avenue that we have open for us."

For more:
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this Dow Jones Newswires article (sub. req.)
- see T-Mobile's letter

Related Articles:
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Verizon urges scrapping D-Block auction process
FCC proposes new plan to auction D-Block
Is the D-Block dead?