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Silicon Valley wrestles self over public safety spectrum

Urgent communications throw-down

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US public-safety officials are involved in a tug-of-war with commercial interests about who gets control over the coveted 10MHz "D-Block" — and here in The Reg's San Francisco territory, said public-safety folks are harming their own cause through bickering and infighting.

And no, we're not talking about that D-Block, we're talking about this D-Block, a chunk of the 700MHz spectrum that many suggest should be reserved for public safety use — meaning fire fighters, rescue workers, law enforcement, and other "first responders".

Aside from the rigors of the all-too-familiar public-safety versus private-profit battle, San Francisco Bay Area officials seem hell-bent on throwing a spanner into the works. As reported by Urgent Communications, the sheriff of Alameda County, across the bay from San Francisco, signed a spectrum-lease agreement with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), an agency tasked by the US Federal Communications Commission to "guide the construction and operation of an interoperable nationwide public safety-grade wireless broadband network."

The lease was signed in the (marvelously redundant) name of the "San Francisco Bay Area Urban Area Region" — an agency that, unfortunately for Alameda County sheriff Gregory Ahern, doesn't seem to exist.

Which concerns San José mayor Chuck Reed, who also expressed concern about the process used to select Motorola to construct a $70m public-safety LTE network, of which $50.6m is to be paid by a US broadband stimulus grant.

Reed also noted that the city of San José hadn't transferred its FCC waiver rights to the 700MHz spectrum to another jurisdiction — real or fictional — and so Ahern had no right to enter into an agreement with the PSST about it.

One real governmental entity in this dust-up is the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) organization, which Urgent Communications says has received approval for a $6m pilot LTE project, but which says that the Motorola deal is not its doing.

"Whatever [the San Francisco Bay Area Urban Area Region] is, we don't yet know,” Reed told Urgent Communications. "I do know what the Bay Area UASI Approval Authority is, because we're a member of that."

From Ahern's point of view, it's Reed who's out of line: "I know that Mayor Reed's trying to say, 'What authority does Sheriff Ahern have to work off of our waiver?'," he said. "My signing of the document was simply to be a point of contact for Motorola and the region, so that we could work together."

Ahern believes that Reed had his chances to weigh in, but missed them, citing San José employees who had been involved in choosing sites for the Motorola project: "If he says that San José was not aware of what was going on, then that's not my fault," Ahern told Urgent Communications.

All of this "he-said-she-said" nonsense is making the public sector look fragmented and disorganized, just when they most need to put up a competent united front in their argument that the D-Block be allotted to them, and them alone.

The private sector, on the other hand, is lobbying heavily for getting its hands on that spectrum — and their efforts are gathering steam. The FCC, for example, has proposed that the D-Block be auctioned off to commercial ventures, with the proceeds going to fund a public-safety system that could then preempt commercial spectrum usage in times of crisis.

As the D-Block battle drags on, some commercial interests now argue that the FCC must auction off the spectrum unless the US Congress enacts legislation otherwise.

But with the results of Tuesday's election turning the Democratic-led House of Representatives into a lame-duck stump that will become vastly more conservative when a red wave of Republicans are sworn in next January, the chance of prompt Congressional action on the spectrum's fate seems remote at best.

The smart money in this fight is on the US Congress doing exactly what it does best in its role as referee between public and private interests: nothing.

At least here in the San Francisco Bay Area Urban Area Region there's some action — as silly as it might be. ®

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