DTV transition clashes with public safety network

A conflict over spectrum is threatening current plans for the DTV transition and a new national public safety communications network.

The Senate Commerce Committee, meeting last week, received a warning from telco and technology companies that the planned 2009 transition to digital television could be jeopardized if the public safety network moves forward on its present course.

The issue at stake is how much of the 700MHz spectrum is needed to build the public safety network and how much remains for public auction.

Cyren Call Communications, a new venture based in McLean, VA, and run by Nextel co-founder Morgan O'Brien, wants to build a wireless, high-speed Internet network to be shared by emergency responders and commercial carriers. With the FCC overseeing the venture, Cyren would then lease capacity to end users.

The conflict is over how much spectrum Cyren requires for its ambitious $17 billion system. The company wants a 30MHz block of spectrum reserved for its use after analog television shuts down. Current law calls for the government to reserve 24MHz of spectrum for public-safety use. The remainder will be auctioned to commercial entities.

The U.S. government expects to net $10billion to $15 billion from the spectrum auction. Granting Cyren more spectrum would result in less spectrum available for auction and lower revenue for the government.

Left in the cold with the U.S. Treasury would also be members of the High Tech DTV Coalition, many who want to bid on the spectrum for a new generation of wireless services.

High Tech DTV Coalition members include Alcatel, Cisco Systems, Dell, Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, as well as the Business Software Alliance, the wireless group CTIA, the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), National Association of Manufacturers and Semiconductor Industry Association. The group fears that the Feb. 17, 2009, changeover to digital TV broadcasting that is now law would unravel if Cyren gets its way.

Joining the coalition in opposing Cyren's proposal was the Consumer Electronics Association. "Cyren Call's proposal would derail Congress' plan to facilitate the DTV transition, and as a result, place public safety agencies at risk to get the spectrum and funding they need for interoperability — spectrum and funding already provided for in the current law," said Jason Oxman, CEA's vice president of communications.

In January, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a Commerce Committee member, announced plans for draft legislation for a "nationwide, state-of-the-art public-safety broadband network" using an additional 30MHz.

A McCain aide told the National Journal, however, that the senator had no intention of postponing the DTV transition, though no explanation was given about how the conflict might be resolved.