What will become of the D-Block?

The goal of creating a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for the public-safety community in the D-Block section of the 700 MHz band is not dead. However, it remains in a state of limbo.

A coalition of public-safety organizations--with the hefty backing of AT&T and Verizon Wireless--have coalesced around a proposal that asks Congress to direct the FCC to allocate 10 MHz of spectrum in the D Block directly to the public-safety community in regional chunks. The organizations would then choose private companies through a request for proposal bidding process to build out the network.

While it is unclear whether this proposal will be passed into law and become a reality--there is competing proposal to re-auction the spectrum--most public-safety associations support the effort.

"We believe [the plan endorsed by the public-safety organizations] is a better process that gives public safety more control over the ... outcome," said Harlin McEwen, the chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, a nonprofit corporation made up of public-safety groups.

A bit of background

In 2007 the FCC issued the PSST a nationwide Public Safety Broadband License for 12 MHz of broadband spectrum in the upper 700 MHz band. The D-Block portion of the 700 MHZ band was supposed to be auctioned off as part of the larger 700 MHz spectrum auction in 2008 to a commercial licensee. The winner of the D Block was to form a public-private partnership with the PSST to build out the network.

Though carriers like Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility spent billions of dollars on 700 MHz spectrum, the D Block languished because of its public-private partnership stipulations. No bidder met the block's reserve price of $1.3 billion. Subsequently, Congress told the FCC to hold off on further D-Block action until the new administration took over--and the process seemed dead. But this spring, it got revived.

Steve zipperstein verizonOn April 17, Steve Zipperstein, Verizon's vice president for legal and external affairs and the carrier's general counsel, gave a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in which he argued that the D-Block re-auction be scrapped.

Instead, he called for allocating the D-Block spectrum directly to public-safety organizations on a state, local and regional basis, which he said would give public safety more control over the spectrum. While acknowledging that such a move would require action from Congress, Zipperstein said that "bold action" was necessary to "overcome the inertia" of creating an interoperable network for public safety.

In late May, several public-safety organizations, including the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, endorsed the idea. Then, in early June, APCO and two other influential organizations--the National Emergency Number Association and the National Public-Safety Telecommunications Council--endorsed LTE as the preferred technology for the public-safety network. And on Sept. 10, the PSST threw its support behind the plan to get Congress to allocate the spectrum directly to public safety. Click here for a detailed D-Block timeline.

Moving forward with a proposal

Rather than force public safety into a marriage with one provider, as would have happened under the initial D-Block auction plan, Verizon's Zipperstein said the new approach allows "public safety to throw open the process to a whole range of potential partners." But the proposal has a long way to go to become reality. Click here for more details about the outstanding issues.

And, naturally, there is an opposing plan. Some carriers support a re-auction of the D-Block for commercial use, and the resulting proceeds would go toward building out a public-safety network. This plan is supported by Leap Wireless, MetroPCS, the Rural Telecommunications Group and T-Mobile USA.

The problem, according to public safety? The auction won't raise enough money...Continued

Next page

Click here for a D Block timeline
Click here for the outstanding issues for public-safety's proposal.

Article updated Sept. 24 to reflect NENA's position.