Frontline Wireless LLC urged U.S. regulators to back its plan to use U.S. airwaves to create an emergency network, saying the move would help safety agencies cope better during terrorist attacks or natural disasters.
The Federal Communications Commission plans to auction the spectrum, which will be freed when television broadcasters convert to digital signals, by January 2008. The FCC plans to vote on preliminary rules governing the auction on April 25.
The company, whose founders include former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, has said the U.S. needs a nationwide network for police and fire departments so they can communicate during crises no matter where they're based. Carriers such as AT&T Inc. (T) want the spectrum so they can boost their capacity to offer high-speed Internet access for mobile devices.
``There is a chronic problem with public-safety capability and interoperability, and the traditional solutions have not panned out,'' Frontline Chairman Janice Obuchowski said yesterday in an interview. She spoke on the plan today during a House Telecommunications Subcommittee hearing.
Frontline plans to lease the commercial airwaves at wholesale rates to carriers when they're not in use by safety agencies. Mobile-phone carriers could use Frontline's proposed network to offer high-speed wireless Internet access as an alternative to landline broadband services sold by phone and cable companies, Obuchowski said.
``A lot of eyes have been on this auction as the last big hope for a new wireless entrant to emerge,'' said Stifel Nicolaus & Co. analyst Rebecca Arbogast. ``There aren't a lot of visible options for that. Frontline is one of the very few.''
A law enacted last year requires the FCC to give 24 megahertz of the airwaves that broadcasters plan to vacate to public safety agencies seeking to improve emergency communications. The agency also has to auction off 60 megahertz for commercial use.
Frontline, based in Greensboro, North Carolina, hopes to buy 10 megahertz of the commercial airwaves. The company wants to use that spectrum, and the public-safety airwaves, to build a wireless Internet-protocol network that safety groups would use for free, according to Frontline's Feb. 26 proposal to the FCC.
The airwaves are ``beachfront property'' because they travel farther and penetrate buildings and trees more easily than other types of spectrum, according to lawmakers such as Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who represents the Silicon Valley district in California.
The auction is a ``historic opportunity to provide the equivalent of a third wire into the home'' as an alternative to phone or cable broadband access, Eshoo said at today's hearing.
``Proposals such as Frontline appear to provide a technologically efficient way to achieve worthwhile policy objectives while preserving an open auction format,'' said Representative John Dingell of Michigan, a Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee
Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, the subcommittee's senior Republican, said he was `highly skeptical' of efforts to create a network that emergency response agencies would share with commercial providers.
``It's not clear why the government should be hardwiring particular business models into the auction rules at the outset,'' Upton said.
Wireless Industry Opposition
Large carriers and the wireless industry group CTIA oppose Frontline's plan. Such an arrangement would violate communications laws and ``significantly de-value the spectrum,'' CTIA President Steve Largent said in an April 5 letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.
FCC consideration of Frontline's proposal also may delay the auction, Largent said in the letter. The Washington-based group's members include AT&T's wireless unit, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel Corp. (S) and T-Mobile USA Inc., the four largest U.S. mobile- phone carriers.
The FCC may decide to allow additional public comment on Frontline's two-month-old proposal, rather than voting April 25 on whether to include it in the auction rules, Arbogast said.
``Frontline's most significant problem has been that they've entered the debate late in day,'' Arbogast said. ``Time is not on their side.''
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