Has the FCC revived the D Block?

Phil Goldstein

The FCC is set to unveil its national broadband plan tomorrow, and among other ambitious goals it calls for freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband and refocusing the Universal Service Fund. What caught my eye though was FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's proposal for the D Block of the 700 MHz band that is the fulcrum for building a nationwide, interoperable, broadband network for pubic safety.

The D-Block proposal addresses several important roadblocks and may finally pave the way toward a policy objective that has vexed the FCC for years. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the proposal (which I'll get to in a minute), but let's look at what we know so far: The plan calls for Congress to allocate $12 billion to $16 billion over 10 years to help build the network. The D Block would be re-auctioned to private bidders, and public-safety agencies will have access to the entirety of the 700 MHz band, not just the D Block. This is a substantial move from where things stood six months ago, when a way forward seemed extremely uncertain.

"I think Genachowski has done a very nice political finesse here," said Harold Feld, the legal director of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy think tank. Feld said the plan ensures sufficient spectrum for public safety, and addresses the funding issue. "The proposal puts it squarely back in Congress's lap to promote the buildout," he said.

Nonetheless, questions abound. Public-safety groups such as the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials had argued that the D Block be allocated to first responders on a regional basis, and that the public-safety groups themselves be allowed to select their own commercial partners to build out the network using LTE. Verizon Wireless, which had fought for the same proposal, said it now is committed to the FCC's plan--except for that whole part about re-auctioning the D Block. AT&T has been in this corner, too.

So, now that the FCC has taken a decidedly different tack, where do we stand? The main questions are:

  • Will Congress fund the plan? This is a tricky question. In an election year, and with rising animus about federal spending, all bets are off. I think the funding will get approved though, as does Feld, who notes the auction could raise between $5 billion and $10 billion. That may be overly optimistic, given that bidders failed to meet the $1.3 billion reserve price the last time around. Then again, they didn't have the prospect of Congress laying out out billions of dollars to help ease things along. So lawmakers can reasonably argue that the winning bid could cover most of the cost of the buildout. They can also argue that the network buildout will create jobs. And, if all else fails, they can say that its for the police and firefighters--a foolproof political tactic in most cases.  
  • Is it enough spectrum? By giving public safety roaming access to all of the 700 MHz band, Genachowski is smartly countering the argument that public-safety agencies won't have enough bandwidth. It also could cut down the cost of chipsets and equipment.   
  • Will public safety go along with it? Feld said public safety "will have to look around and see what the new political reality is." Will getting the network built outweigh how it's done? I think so. This issue is too important to get lost in the weeds. 
  • And, most importantly, who will bid? Most major players have withheld a public decision on the issue until they can review the rules for the auction. AT&T and Verizon have not made it clear whether they will participate in an auction, since it flies in the face of everything they have been arguing for months. Sprint Nextel, which does not own 700 MHz spectrum, has come out in favor of Genachowski's plan, as has Clearwire. MetroPCS might also show up. T-Mobile USA, which plans to eventually deploy LTE but does not own any 700 MHZ spectrum, is interested too. "We're very optimistic and supportive of what the FCC is trying to do here," Kathleen Ham, an FCC veteran and T-Mobile's vice president of federal regulatory affairs, told me. If anything, it looks like it will be a much livelier auction than the last one. 

Is the FCC's plan going to make everyone happy? No. A lot of the details are still unknown, including the auction rules. But I think it's a good enough compromise to move forward on. If public-safety groups and wireless carriers really care about creating a nationwide broadband network for first responders, they'll do what's right and forge ahead with this proposal as a blueprint, even if that means foregoing some profits.

The D Block was supposed to be dead. The FCC has helped bring it back to life. Don't mess with a zombie spectrum plan. --Phil