FCC reluctantly proposes rules to auction the T-Band

The Federal Communications Commission is usually enthusiastic about opening up additional spectrum for commercial use. Not in the case of the T-Band—which has long been used by public safety agencies in some major cities, but under a Congressional mandate, has to be auctioned off by February 2021.

The section of law which requires the T-Band to be auctioned is part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which also created the First Responders Network Authority. The deal it created was essentially this: If public safety was to be granted dedicated Band 14 spectrum at 700 MHz and future auction proceeds that would fund a public-private partnership for a national first responder mobile broadband network, they would have to give up the T-Band.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai has repeatedly asked Congress to scuttle the so-called T-Band mandate, arguing that between the cost of moving users out of the band and the disruption to public safety communications, it’s not worth it. While there is bipartisan opposition to a T-Band auction and some legislation has been proposed that would include a repeal of the mandate, so far Congress hasn’t passed anything that lets the FCC off the hook for a T-Band auction. So the agency recently proposed rules (pdf) for the reallocation of the T-Band spectrum at 470-512 MHz.

“An FCC auction of the T-band is a bad idea. But as of today, the law mandates that we do it. It’s unfortunate that Commission resources must be dedicated to laying the groundwork for an auction that will likely fail,” Pai said in a statement in May. “This is especially true at a time when we are making every effort to keep Americans safe and connected, including allowing expanded temporary use of this very spectrum to help first responders save lives. … I hope legislation passes soon so first responders who rely on this spectrum no longer need to worry about a potential loss of or significant disruption to their mission-critical radio systems.”

The proposed flexible use rules would include fixed or mobile wireless, and permitting broadband operations to continue in the band. There is between 6-18 megahertz of spectrum potentially available in each of eleven urbanized areas where the T-Band is in use: Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Dallas/Fort Worth, TX; Houston, TX; Los Angeles, CA; Miami, FL; New York, NY/NE NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Pittsburgh, PA; San Francisco/Oakland, CA; and Washington, D.C./MD/VA (T-Band spectrum was also allocated but never assigned in Detroit, Michigan and Cleveland, Ohio, due to conflicts with Canada about border operations). T-Band licensees are allows an 80-mile operational radius.

According to the FCC, in most of those areas, “T-Band provides public safety entities with significant and much needed additional channel capacity to support their operations.” The agency said that major public safety T-Band licensees include the county of Los Angeles, the New York City Police Department, and the city of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management Communications. There are also critical infrastructure users and business users operating in the band, including utilities, oil and gas companies, and chemical plants, as well as hospitals, according to the FCC.

In Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York, public safety usage of T-Band is “significantly greater” than industrial/business usage, the FCC said, while the band is used more for business/industrial than public safety in Dallas, Houston, Miami, San Francisco, and Washington areas. In Chicago and Pittsburg, usage is about evenly split. The FCC said that according to its licensing records, there are about 925 public safety T-Band licensees with 3,000 stations, and approximately 700 non-public safety entities with 1,700 stations throughout the T-Band spectrum.

Cost estimates for user relocation in the band from both the FCC and the Government Accountability Office range from $5-$6 billion, with the GAO pegging the cost at around $5.9 billion. “These estimated relocation costs would greatly exceed the total expected revenues from an auction for both wireless use and the provision of broadcast services,” the FCC noted in its proposed T-Band rules.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted in a statement that given the estimated costs and the amount of spectrum at issue, “relocating the communications of these existing public safety authorities would cost billions more than we can reasonably expect to recover in this auction” and “the lack of alternative public safety spectrum in many of the affected areas would leave a dangerous gap in emergency communications.

“I wholeheartedly agree with the Chairman that congressional action that would stop this auction and allow public safety authorities to continue to communicate using the T-Band is the best way forward,” Rosenworcel added.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will act to avert the auction.

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