The Beltway Battle Over Block D

By Joseph Straw

What began as an uncontroversial plan to use freed-up radio frequency spectrum for a national wireless broadband network for first responders has degenerated into a pitched policy battle in Washington. On one side are the country’s wireless industry and its regulators; on the other, first responders. And stuck in the middle is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The process began in advance of 2008’s national transfer to digital television, which consumes far less spectrum than its less efficient analog predecessor. Prior to the switch, the federal government allocated 24 MHz of freed-up spectrum for first responders to help address the persistent challenge of establishing voice interoperability between agencies and jurisdictions. The remaining vacated spectrum would be auctioned off in five blocks. One such block, designated Block D, carried a requirement that the buyer build infrastructure to support a national first-responder broadband network supporting voice and data within the band.

The Block D auction failed, however, because no one submitted an offer that met the required minimum bid of $1.3 billion; the highest bidder was willing to pay only $472 million. Observers blamed the weak economy, companies’ reluctance to take on a project of such scale singlehandedly and, of course, doubts about the project’s profitability.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started over. It now plans to hold a second Block D auction in 2011. The commission’s current conditions for the sale: the buyer would build out infrastructure for a 4G network using the next-generation broadband network protocol, called Long Term Evolution or LTE. The buyer would be permitted to use Block D for commercial as well as public-safety traffic. In emergencies, however, the service providers would be required to immediately prioritize first-responder data traffic within Block D, and if bandwidth there was fully consumed, such as in a 9-11-scale event, providers would also be required to bump traffic from other, purely commercial bands to satisfy responders’ needs.

(To finish reading "A Fight Over First-Responder Bandwith" in the November issue of Security Management, click here.)

♦ Picture by U.S. Department of Commerce/WikiMediaCommons


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