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FCC, Public Safety Officials Spar Over Wireless Spectrum

Auctioning off prime wireless spectrum to help pay for a public safety network versus giving public safety providers priority access to the D-block is the crux of the battle.

The Federal Communications Commission and public safety officials are at a crossroads over a plan to build a nationwide wireless broadband network for police, firefighters and emergency medical workers, leaving the future of a new system in limbo.

The agency wants to auction off a portion of prime wireless spectrum, known as the D Block, to the wireless industry. The proceeds could be as high as $4 billion and be used to help pay for a public safety network on a different part of spectrum earmarked for first responder broadband use. While the FCC maintains that the existing public safety airwaves, which sit next to the D Block, have enough capacity for day-to-day operations, public safety leaders vehemently disagree. During last year's transition from analog to digital TV signals, both pieces of spectrum became available.

The FCC proposal would give public safety providers priority access to the D Block to in the event of an emergency, along with other airwaves that were part of the digital transition. But the providers claim the current spectrum holdings are not adequate to fulfill their safety requirements and are concerned about relying on commercial networks to fill in during emergencies. They are proposing that the government give them the D Block so it can be used in tandem with adjacent airwaves, which would significantly increase the amount of spectrum available exclusively for public safety broadband.

Both sides have key supporters. Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. support the public safety leaders, along with Verizon Wireless and AT&T, who both gained spectrum from 2008 digital transition auctions. Motorola, which makes first responder communications gear and handsets, is another proponent. But the FCC plan is favored by members of the House Commerce Committee, who are drafting legislation, in addition to T-Mobile USA and Sprint Nextel Corp.

All the players concur that the country's public safety communications networks must move into the digital era. In the meantime, funding such a network has become the focus while Congress pursues the debate. A new public safety network could cost as much as $6.5 billion, according to the FCC, and between $6 billion and $10 billion to run it and maintain in for 10 years; costs for a standalone network would be significantly higher, according to the FCC. Public safety officials maintain that they would be able to lease portions of unused airwaves to commercial carriers if they were given the D Block, as they wouldn't constantly need all of it. If they don't get D Block auction proceeds, the public safety leaders still say they would be able to find a way to pay for a broadband network.

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