Louis Freeh, former director of the U.S. FBI, has endorsed a wireless spectrum auction proposal from Frontline Wireless, saying its plan represents the best chance for U.S. public safety agencies to get a much-needed interoperable communications system.
Frontline's proposal would allow private investments to build a national wireless network for public safety agencies such as police and fire departments, said Freeh, who served as head of the FBI from September 1993 to June 2001.
Frontline is asking the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require that the winner of part of the spectrum in the 700MHz band to be auctioned by early next year build a nationwide wireless network to be shared by public safety agencies and commercial providers.
"This auction is just the last chance, at least in my time, for some effective plan to be implemented," Freeh said at a Frontline press conference Thursday.
Freeh said he's been calling for a national, interoperable public safety network since the early 1980s, but the U.S. government hasn't made it happen. Following the terrorist attacks on the United States, the national 9/11 Commission recommended that public safety should get additional spectrum for an interoperable network. Following a lengthy debate, U.S. television stations will abandon the 700MHz band in February 2009.
In many cases, the emergency response agencies responding to the Sept. 11 attacks couldn't communicate with each other because their radios operated on different spectrum bands.
There's a "critical need" for emergency response agencies to better communicate, Freeh said. "A private-sector fix is exactly what's needed," he added.
The Frontline plan, opposed by some U.S. lawmakers, wireless carriers and think tanks, would take 10MHz from 60MHz to be auctioned and add it to 12MHz of a 24MHz block reserved for public safety. Frontline has called for the winner of the 10MHz to be required to offer the spectrum to wireless and broadband providers on a wholesale basis.
Several lawmakers have questioned the so-called open access rules endorsed by Frontline and other groups. This week, 38 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to the FCC, suggesting the open access rules would dictate how auction winners manage their networks and could reduce the value of the spectrum.
Verizon Wireless also opposed open access, saying supply and demand should determine what the spectrum is used for.
"The wireless industry has produced a steady stream of innovations...that have given American consumers myriad choices about how they use their wireless service," said Steve Zipperstein, Verizon Wireless' vice president and general counsel, after a congressional hearing this week. "Consumer choice would be the casualty of policies that mandate that all companies do the same thing the same way."
But the wholesale provision will allow new wireless broadband services across the United States, and Frontline is asking for open access rules on 10MHz of the spectrum to be auctioned, said Reed Hundt, Frontline's vice chairman and former FCC chairman. The current crop of large wireless and broadband providers isn't interested in creating new networks or in fostering more competition, he said.
Hundt and several Frontline allies said auction rules that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin endorsed this week appear to fall short of creating a third broadband competitor to the large cable and telecom providers. Martin, in media reports, called for a part of the spectrum auctioned to include rules that would allow customers to run the applications of their choice and to use the wireless devices of their choice.
But without the wholesale rules, large companies that win the spectrum can stifle competition, said Ram Shriram, founder of venture capital firm Sherpalo Ventures. The new spectrum "should not have a gatekeeper for new applications to be offered," he said.