Emergency preparedness officials will fan out this week on Capitol Hill to ask lawmakers to give them a valuable slice of broadband spectrum to establish a public safety communications network.
But behind this wholesome scene of law enforcement and firefighters roaming the halls of Congress is a fierce lobbying battle that has pitted the nation’s communications companies against each other.
At stake is access to prime wireless spectrum that penetrates deep into buildings. It is a piece of broadband real estate that AT&T and Verizon already have available to them and that their smaller competitors such as T-Mobile and Sprint deeply desire. AT&T and Verizon already obtained a good chunk of this valuable broadband in a Federal Communications Commission auction in 2008.
“The sad truth is that anytime you have something this valuable, you will have big companies interested,” said Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, an open Internet advocacy group.
The dispute is over whether the federal government should allocate the spectrum to public safety officials or auction it off to private companies, which would then allow local entities to roam their system in emergencies.
AT&T and Verizon have teamed up with public safety organizations in supporting the allocation of the spectrum, called the D Block, to local authorities. Police and fire officials say they need more wireless capability, though they have had access to a share of spectrum that Congress allotted them more than a decade ago.
That approach was recently backed by President Barack Obama, as well as Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has reintroduced legislation that would permit the allocation of the spectrum to public safety.
On the other side, T-Mobile and Sprint are supporting a plan by the FCC to auction off some of this spectrum, with the proceeds being used to help build communications infrastructure, such as transmission towers.
They contend that AT&T and Verizon oppose the auction because they don’t want the valuable spectrum to get into the hands of their competitors.
“It is basically a business proposition for them,” said Kathleen Ham, vice president of federal regulatory affairs for T-Mobile.
She took issue with AT&T and Verizon trying to ally themselves with public safety officials.
“It is very self-serving,” she said.
Ham acknowledged that her company was advocating a position that would be financially beneficial to T-Mobile. She said the spectrum in question is akin to “beachfront property” because it can penetrate deeper into buildings and extend longer distances.
“We don’t have any lower-band spectrum,” she said. “We would like some lower-band spectrum.”
Also supporting the auction approach is a coalition of small rural communications companies, which contend that auctioning off spectrum will help rural areas by bringing more competition into the market.
“Verizon and AT&T are trying to create a duopoly,” said Carrie Bennet, the general counsel for the Rural Telecommunications Group.
Proponents of the direct allocation of the spectrum to public safety argue that forcing local authorities to share the communications systems controlled by private companies would not work in emergencies. Once the spectrum is auctioned off, they say, the government can’t take it back if the emergency communication system becomes overloaded.