FCC seeks to revive emergency communications network plan

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission approved a new framework for the creation of a nationwide emergency communications network Thursday amid concerns that the ongoing economic crisis may make it difficult to attract investors.

This is the agency's second attempt to create a set of rules for the network, which would use public airwaves and private money. The first attempt flopped earlier this year when it failed to attract a bidder.

The new framework includes more detail and makes the plan more attractive to private companies in several areas.

The proposed network would be used by police, firefighters and other emergency crews responding to disasters or terrorist attacks.

The basic concept is unchanged.

The agency would auction a swath of airwaves — made available thanks to the transition to digital broadcasting — to a private bidder. That spectrum would be combined with a roughly equal portion of airwaves controlled by a public safety trust.

The private investor would build a wireless network and lease access to emergency responders while selling wireless service to commercial users for profit.

In March, a similar plan failed to attract a minimum bid of $1.3 billion. Potential investors said the proposal was too vague and too risky to serve as the basis of a multibillion-dollar investment.

Ideally, a new network will help solve the problem of public safety organizations not being able to communicate with one another. It also would avail emergency personnel of many advances in wireless technology that are accessible to commercial users.

The FCC says a national network could cost between $6 billion and $7 billion, but private sector estimates are more than double that amount. Construction of such a network would be years away even with FCC approval.

To make the plan more appealing to investors, the agency would reduce the minimum bid for a national license by nearly half and relax requirements on how quickly the bidder must construct its network.

The plan also allows bids on regional licenses rather than requiring only a single, national license.

The plan was placed on the agenda for a vote by Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin despite some resistance from the two Democrats on the commission.

Commissioner Michael Copps worried that the network may not be robust enough to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes, and that a proposed charge for public safety users of $48.50 per user, per month may be too high.

Jonathan Adelstein said the reserve price was too much despite the reduction and said Martin is not allowing enough time for public comment before a final vote.

Martin said public safety organizations need a network now. The airwaves for the proposed system will be available in February and will lie "fallow" without FCC action.

"I think it's just critical to get this done as soon as possible," he told reporters following the commission meeting.

The FCC could vote on final rules by the end of the year with an auction taking place sometime in mid-to-late 2009.

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