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FCC talks National Broadband

TV spectrum for the interwebs

The FCC reckons that the private sector can't be trusted with public safety and that TV companies should sell off some spectrum to ensure broadband for all.

It's just over two weeks until the FCC presents its National Broadband Plan (March 16th), but already, the regulator has started slipping out details of the plan, including a promise to find 500MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband and a request for Congress to cough up $16bn for a public-safety network to be integrated with priority access to commercial networks.

FCC chair Julius Genachowski has been making comments about the forthcoming plan, including some details of a new public safety network and the FCC's plans for finding more radio spectrum for private companies to play with, not to mention removing some of the restrictions and procedures that make building wireless networks such an expensive business.

The FCC's previous plan for a public-service network was to auction off 20MHz of 700MHz spectrum (paired into two 10MHz channels, and named "D-Block") with the proviso that the buyer had to build a network for first responders (fire brigade, police, etc.) The problem was that no-one wanted the burden, so the spectrum didn't get sold and the US still lacks a nationwide emergency network.

"The private sector simply is not going to build a nationwide, state-of-the-art, interoperable broadband network for public safety on its own dime," points out the good Mr. Genachowski.

Thus, the request for something between $12bn and $16bn over the next 10 years, creating a $6bn federal grant to cover the cost of building the network and cover running costs. That federal funding will come with a mandated technical standard, to ensure that "public safety will have available to it cutting-edge technology, including handsets, at consumer electronic prices," which almost certainly means LTE as the biggest game in town.

Using LTE will also make the kit interoperable with commercial networks, which would be ideal as the FCC intends to make use of "priority access on commercial broadband networks" when necessary.

TV companies, meanwhile, will be encouraged to hand back their existing radio spectrum in exchange for a cut of the auctioned value. That money could be used to pay for the kind of low-power-broadcast network that the CTIA suggested last December, but in some areas, TV broadcast spectrum is lying fallow and could easily be recycled, at least according to the FCC.

Using all that spectrum will require infrastructure, and while there aren't any details yet, the FCC is planning to reduce the bureaucratic burden on those who want to connect the unconnected - which means faster planning approvals and fewer rules restricting what operators can do.

Those operators will also be able to pay for infrastructure from the universal service fund. They'll be no additional money in the pot but the FCC reckons that mobile connectivity is now just as important as fixed services.

The National Broadband Plan is due to be presented next Tuesday, so we'll know a lot more once that happens, but if the bits already emerged are anything to go by it's going to be quite a document. ®

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