01:38 AM

Valley leaders offer public/private solution to spectrum wars

On Feb. 1, 2009, federal law requires broadcasters to vacate a whole bunch of radio spectrum, as the switch to digital draws to completion. What to do with all that spectrum, some 108 megahertz? The current plan is to reserve just 24 megahertz for a national emergency response system and to sell off about 60 megahertz to commercial wireless players. But pressure is mounting for more spectrum to be used to make the emergency response system a heavy-duty, state-of-the art affair, The Wall Street Journal reports.

With the wireless industry and first-responders increasingly at loggerheads over the spectrum, the FCC will soon make a decision about to play it. And one proposal receiving a lot of attention is from Frontline Wireless, an investment group started by former FCC chairman Reed Hunt and including Valley VCs L. John Doerr and James L. Barksdale, The New York Times reports.

"The country's not going to have this opportunity again in my generation," says Janice Obuchowski, a telecom official in the first Bush administration whose new company, Frontline Wireless, is one of several with mixed-use proposals on the table. "There's no other spectrum this attractive that is not occupied," Ms. Obuchowski says.

The FCC is auctioning off some 60 megahertz to commercial wireless businesses but pressure is now building to hold back some of that spectrum. Between turning it all over to industry or holding more of it back for public use, some people are recommending a Third Way: public/private partnerships.

Frontline Wireless proposes to take half of the 24 megahertz spectrum already set aside by Congress for emergency purposes, bid in the auction for an additional 10 megahertz, and then build a broadband network for joint use, giving priority access to emergency services during crises. Backing the plan, Ms. Obuchowski joined forces with Reed Hundt, FCC chairman during the Clinton administration, and Haynes Griffin, a founder of Vanguard Cellular Systems Inc., which was bought by AT&T in 1998.

An earlier proposal backed by Nextel would have sold half the 60 megahertz to a nonprofit trust for joint use. That was rejected by lawmakers but is still supported by first-responder groups. Some lawmakers think the 24 megahertz already promised is enough.

"The burden of proof rests with those who advocate that an even greater amount of spectrum should be made available to emergency services over and above what they have already been given," says Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, an influential Democrat on the House Commerce Committee.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin seems to signalling preference for emergency use of the spectrum.

"In general, public-private partnerships do serve a very valuable purpose and can achieve very good goals," Mr. Martin says. "But in this case, you've got to make sure that when first responders have an emergency, they get the kind of access they need."

Mr. Martin says the FCC could opt to set national standards and leave it up to local emergency services to find the funds to build a broadband service that fits their needs. The FCC chairman says the Frontline plan raises questions because it essentially seeks to limit bidders for the 10 megahertz of spectrum.