— Satellite industry advocates are pressing for a larger satellite role in a U.S.-wide public safety network that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is seeking to create via an auction of radio spectrum likely to occur next year.

It will be the FCC’s second attempt at auctioning off what is called the D Block of spectrum in the 700 megahertz frequency range. The first attempt failed early this year when the sole bidder fell $828 million short of $1.3 billion – the minimum the FCC hoped to raise from the sale.

The commission issued a call for public comment on rules for the second auction attempt in April. Among those who responded by the July 14 deadline were Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) of Reston, Va., and a pair of advocacy groups that count MSV as a member: the Satellite Industry Association of Washington and the Mobile Satellite Users Association of Reston. All three said the FCC should offer better incentives for D Block bidders to include satellites in their network plans.

The FCC has set aside the D Block spectrum for a nationwide commercial terrestrial network, with the stipulation that the operator make airtime available free of charge to state, local and national disaster response organizations. Among the rules governing the failed auction was that at least one of the handset models offered to prospective network users have the capability to also communicate via satellite.

MSV wants the FCC to require that all handsets designed for the network be satellite enabled. This would give police, fire and other emergency responders a means to communicate when cellular towers are damaged or phone lines are jammed following a disaster, said Jennifer Manner, vice president of regulatory affairs for MSV, which is planning a hybrid satellite-terrestrial communications network covering North America.

MSV said the FCC should require all devices using D Block spectrum to be able to link up to a satellite via a chipset that would cost approximately $5. MSV envisions using this technology in its planned satellite-terrestrial network, said company spokesman Tom Surface.

The Satellite Industry Association, which represents a wide variety of satellite companies, along with the Mobile Satellite Users Association, stopped short of advocating that all D Block handsets be satellite enabled. They said the FCC should retain its original requirement that satellite enabled phones be available to network users that want them.

In its comments, the Mobile Satellite Users Association said it might be too expensive to mandate that all handsets designed for the public safety network be satellite enabled.

Manner, who also serves as chairwoman of the Satellite Industry Association, spoke on behalf of that organization during a July 30 meeting in
New York
on the upcoming auction. She said having a satellite component to the emergency network, in conjunction with easing some of the FCC’s coverage and schedule requirements, could make the D Block spectrum more attractive to prospective bidders.

Satellite connectivity also would make the network less vulnerable to outages caused by ground infrastructure damage, Manner said. “More widespread deployment of dual-mode devices to public safety agencies would ensure that first responders can communicate anywhere, at any time,” Manner said. “Moreover, it would enable first responders to have confidence that they could have an alternate means of communication in any remote or hard to reach area in routine conditions – not just when the terrestrial infrastructure is experiencing outages.”

MSV, citing critics who blame the failure of the first D Block auction on the strings attached to the spectrum, said the FCC should ease some of its requirements for the network’s terrestrial infrastructure. The FCC’s rules specify that the D Block licensee build a terrestrial network covering 99.3 percent of the
population within 10 years and that rural towers and other infrastructure be hardened against disasters.

MSV said companies will be more likely to bid on the spectrum if the deployment timetable was stretched out to 12 years and if they were allowed to rely on satellites rather than hardening of rural infrastructure for assured links during emergencies. Additional money could be saved if the population coverage requirement were reduced to 95 percent.

The coverage requirement does little to help rural areas because large portions of the
United States
are sparsely populated, said Bruce Jacobs, MSV legal consultant. “One of the things that’s a little surprising is that the 99.3 percent could be done by covering just 27 percent of the
land mass,” Jacobs said. “The
and far West regions would be left uncovered by a 700 megahertz national safety broadband network.”

As it enters the rulemaking phase for the next auction, the FCC has a wide variety of other suggestions to review. Some emergency responders such as the New York City Police Department are seeking regional control of the network. The department, along with other police and fire departments, suggested a “network of networks,” allowing local agencies to establish their own networks with a nationally run network eventually stitching everything together. Donald Brittingham, assistant vice president of spectrum policy for Verizon Communications, told the FCC July 30 that his company supported this approach.

Some companies, such as telecommunications giant AT&T, also have suggested that the FCC put out a request for proposals rather than auction the spectrum. Others have suggested selling D Block for top dollar without stipulations on its use and using the proceeds to build a separate public safety network.

Before the auction can occur, the FCC must publish auction rules, then hold a public comment period before revising and adopting the final rules. The timeframe is tight for meeting the FCC goal of holding the auction this year, but the FCC has not officially moved the auction to 2009, spokesman Robert Kenny said.

“There is still a chance it could happen by year’s end,” Kenny said July 31.