Public Safety & Homeland Security

D-Block Dilemma: Will the FCC Waive the Auction Requirement?

The digital transition opened new channels for public safety, but a failed FCC auction has put the future of public safety broadband in jeopardy.

by / March 11, 2010
D-Block Dilemma March 2010 Art

Thanks to effective marketing efforts, many people undoubtedly believe that the reason the country’s digital transition took place last year was so that government could ensure a better TV-viewing experience. The reality, of course, isn’t so altruistic. The analog spectrum on which television had been traditionally broadcast was — and is — a valuable piece of radio real estate. By requiring TV broadcasts to go digital, broadcasters can pack more data into much narrower bandwidth, which means more content with improved television picture and better sound — just as promised.

The analog spectrum, meanwhile, saw all those bandwidth-hogging television broadcasts cleared out. The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 granted the FCC authority to reallocate analog channels 52 through 69, known as the 700 MHz band, to the highest bidder. So the digital transition wasn’t about better TV for all, but (unsurprisingly) rather about money. However, the act did require that a portion of the spectrum, known as the D Block, be auctioned with the stipulation that the winning bidder form a public-private partnership under the direction of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corp. (PSST), a nonprofit consisting of public safety groups, to build a nationwide public safety broadband network.

The auction, held in 2008 before the actual digital switchover, was a boon for the government, raking in $20 billion from the auction of four blocks of spectrum. There was only one problem: No one bid on the D Block, at least not enough to meet its $1.3 billion reserve price. The lack of bidders was blamed on the public safety network requirement. Since the auction failure, the FCC has done nothing with the D Block. This stagnation recently led to 17 state and local governments to try to get the ball rolling again on their own by asking the FCC to drop the idea of auctioning the D Block and instead let them build their own regional public safety broadband networks on the abandoned spectrum.

Cornerstone or Monkey Wrench?

On March 17, the FCC is scheduled to deliver Congress its formal report on a plan to build out a national broadband network. Absent from this report will be the public safety portion of the network, since the D Block continues to go unused. That’s where the 17 state and local governments come in, including cities such as Boston, San Francisco and San Antonio, and states like New York, New Mexico and New Jersey. They’ve all filed applications to the FCC asking the agency to waive the requirement that the D Block be auctioned. Rather, these cities and states are asking the FCC to let them build their own regional broadband networks, possibly through public-private partnerships, using the D Block portion of the spectrum. These regional networks could help speed the development of a national broadband network.

Most of these waiver applications were sent to the FCC late last year. If any action is going to be taken, it won’t be before the FCC delivers its report to Congress, said Harlin McEwen, a former police chief and former assistant deputy director of the FBI who currently serves as chairman of the PSST.

“I don’t think anybody is opposed to what they’re trying to do,” McEwen said. “The problem is the FCC has not acted upon those applications and said it’s not likely they’re going to do anything until after the national broadband plan comes out on March 17.”

Indeed, there’s broad support for the movement, even from industry players like Verizon, Alcatel-Lucent and AT&T among those that were supposed to have been the ones to bid on the D Block. The general idea is that the FCC ought to just give the D Block to public safety agencies and let them choose how to build a broadband network and with whom to partner. But the FCC hasn’t indicated it will do anything other than put the D Block back up for auction.

On Jan. 12, Alcatel-Lucent issued a statement on the matter: “Once again, the FCC is planning to address this issue by the disposition of the D Block via auction, a process that failed miserably when previously implement[ed]. Public safety officials, service providers and infrastructure vendors agree that a more effective method would be to allocate the D Block directly to public safety organizations in order to create a national broadband network that would meet the critical needs of first responders.”

The problem is, in addition to waiting on the FCC, there’s no working plan for the applicants to coalesce around. Some cities and states may have funding ready to go, some may not. No standards have been agreed upon, so there’s no guarantee these projects, should they move forward, won’t actually hurt a national broadband network instead of help.

McEwen said the PSST is trying to bring the applicants together to develop a workable strategy, one that he hopes will help influence the FCC to decide in their favor.

“The PSST has been supportive of those waivers,” McEwen said. “The PSST has formed a new advisory committee called the Operator Advisory Committee. We had our first organizational meeting with some of the 17, not all of them, back in January. We’re reaching out to the other waiver applications because we don’t even know who’s in charge of some of them other than the attorneys who filed [the applications]. We’re trying to establish who is running those operations, getting our arms around that, and begin to have discussions between the 17 [state and local governments seeking a waiver from the D Block requirement] so they can share information with us and each other.”

In a good sign for the applicants and public safety in general, there seems to be growing support for the proposal, despite the FCC’s reluctance to act. 

Last September, former Los Angeles Police Chief, and New York City and Boston Police Commissioner Bill Bratton addressed the House of Representatives on behalf of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Bratton spoke specifically about the need to act on the D Block, saying its value to the future of law enforcement outweighs whatever money it could bring at auction.

“In order to be useful, information needs to be relevant, accurate and timely. But just as important, it must be accessible,” he said. “New technologies such as automated license plate readers, biometrics, medical telemetry, automated vehicle location and streaming video only scratch the surface of the capabilities that will be carried by broadband networks. The D Block is critical for the accessibility of information to first responders across our nation.

“Although some have questioned how to offset the potential loss of revenue resulting from the D Block being taken off the auction block, we see this scenario in fundamentally different terms. We view the reallocation of the D Block as a critically needed investment in public safety rather than as a loss of revenue. This investment of spectrum into public safety will reap large dividends far into the future.”

In October 2009, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) offered its conditional support as well. In a letter to the FCC, the association said: “TIA members support all measures that will ultimately lead to the development of a nationwide, interoperable broadband public safety network that meets core requirements essential for first responders. To that end, TIA supports the public safety waivers, provided that such waivers are conditioned upon meeting network build-out and implementation requirements that will ensure compatibility with a nationwide interoperable public safety network.”

In November 2009, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration advised the FCC to consider the waivers. However, the agency was careful to note that the waivers’ approval should hinge on ensuring that the FCC issue rules to guarantee that any regional broadband network development will integrate with a national broadband network.

“[The FCC] should explicitly reaffirm the existing rule that the Public Safety Broadband Licensee (PSBL) has discretion to approve federal agency use of public safety broadband channels. [Author’s note: The PSBL refers to the entity/entities given permission to use the D Block, such as the cities and states that have submitted waiver applications.] Four federal agencies help ensure the nation’s safety every day. They partner with state, local and tribal public safety and law enforcement, stand ready to intervene in the case of extraordinary disasters, and fulfill unmet public safety needs in carrying out their primary duties. All agencies providing public safety services — state, local, tribal and federal — will benefit from access to an interoperable broadband capability. The commission should condition any waivers granted on compliance with the existing rule permitting the PSBL to approve federal use.”

Wait and See

The future of public safety broadband and the national broadband plan will be set following the FCC’s report to Congress due March 17. McEwen, for one, believes there’s reason for optimism. Though not every entity that’s asking for a waiver will get one, McEwen thinks some will. And that should be enough to finally start ushering in a new era of communication technology at the public safety level and on a national scale.

“I’m more optimistic than pessimistic,” he said. “I don’t think all of them will necessarily be successful. They have to have a vision of what they want to do, they have to have funding, and many of them don’t yet. If they work with us and make sure everything they do is compatible with a national strategy, I’m optimistic because that would get things going more quickly than waiting to get everything in place to build out a whole nationwide network.”


Some organizations known to support the reallocation of the D Block to public safety:

International Association of Chiefs of Police
International Association of Fire Chiefs
Major Cities Chiefs Association
Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association
Major County Sheriffs’ Association
National Sheriffs’ Association
Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International
National Emergency Management Association
Public Safety Spectrum Trust
National Public Safety Telecommunications Council


The 17 Applicants

Bay Area, Calif.
Charlotte, N.C.
Chesapeake, Va.
Denver Airport-Adams County, Colo.
Los Angeles
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York City
New York state
North Dakota
Pembroke Pines, Fla.
San Antonio, Texas
Washington, D.C.

Source: Harlin McEwen

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is a former contributing editor for Emergency Management magazine, and previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.