Inside the 700 MHz spectrum land grab

Like a fresh spring breeze, new radio-frequency spectrum is in the air. It is so close that you can almost smell it – and seek to keep others away from it.

The next big spectrum land grab is over 700 Megahertz (MHz.) It’s the promised land of “beachfront property” that broadcasters are set to vacate on February 19, 2009, when the transition to digital television is supposed to be complete. Lots of folks are jockeying now to lock up these airwaves.

Besting the television broadcasters was the battle back in 2005. The high-tech industry teamed up with wireless carriers, and with the public safety officials, to push for DTV legislation forcing broadcasters out of the 700 MHz band.

The gizmo-makers have sought the frequencies for more than a decade. Same with spectrum-poor wireless carriers like T-Mobile. They joined up with Cisco, Dell, Intel and Microsoft to form the High-Tech DTV Coalition in 2005.

They struck a pact with public safety officials, who were also motivated against the broadcasters. Congress had promised public safety 24 of the 108 megahertz once the DTV transition was complete.

With the February 2006 passage of the DTV legislation, 60 of those 108 megahertz will be opened at auction by January 2008. Police and firefighters will get their due. The additional 24 megahertz within the band is already owned by Access Spectrum, Aloha Partners, Pegasus Communications and Qualcomm.

So how will those 60 megahertz get sliced up?

Verizon Wireless has been rumored to bid for up to 30, half of what’s available. Other players, including DirecTV, Echostar, Google, Intel, Skype and Yahoo!, have joined a push to ensure that the wireless licenses will be nationwide– and to potentially compete with the incumbents.

But if you don’t want to actually pay for the best frequencies, there’s always the good old-fashioned way: convince politicians to give it to you. Morgan O’Brien has perfected this strategy. He used it in 1990 to convert his radio-dispatcher frequencies into cell-phone licenses and jump start cellular carrier FleetCall.

In 2002, his company, then called Nextel, did it again. With the help of Rudy Giuliani and his Giuliani Partners lobbying firm, Nextel partnered with public safety. It eventually persuaded the FCC to agree to its plan swapping a disjoined band of frequencies for a contiguous 10-megahertz national license.

“If there were a Nobel Prize for lobbying, I would give it to Nextel and Morgan O’Brien,” said J.H. Snider, research director of the New America Foundation’s Wireless Future Program.

But O’Brien’s third attempt, a company called Cyren Call, is turning into a dud. Again, he’s rallied public safety officials, who say that 24 megahertz is not enough for interoperable communications. Cyren Call wants to devote 30 of those 60 megahertz and to a Public Safety Broadband Trust. Conveniently, O’Brien’s company would manage the spectrum. And during down-times (i.e., when there are not wide-scale emergencies), Cyren Call would resell commercial service over the airwaves.

This dual commercial/public safety use would allow Cyren Call to make more efficient use of the spectrum than traditionally done by public safety. But it would also take spectrum off the market. In December, the FCC rejected the Cyren Call, saying: 24 megahertz was enough for public safety.

Those eager to bid on the new airwaves didn’t want to take any chances. That was particularly so after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a champion of the DTV transition, appeared to favor Cyren Call in a January press release.

“Morgan O’Brien’s plan was such a sword of Damocles: half of all the spectrum that they were counting on buying would go away,” said Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center (link to, who has researched the interoperability dilemma.

The techies resurrected their old DTV coalition. But this time, they went after public safety. Janice Obuchowski, who had been the executive director of the coalition, joined former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt to float an alternative, Frontline Wireless, which would gobble only 10 additional megahertz for public safety. And the coalition funded an attack on Cyren Call, which they said would disrupt the DTV transition and harm consumer welfare.

This time around, Verizon Wireless is an eager participant in the DTV coalition. “Cyren Call’s leaders are the same people who, while at Nextel, created the 800 MHz rebanding scheme,” a reference to the spectrum swap by lobbyists for Verizon, who bitterly opposed the swap.

“Cyren Call is dead,” said a telecommunications industry lobbyist. But when will public safety realize that? It isn’t clear yet whether they will gravitate toward Frontline, a kind of Cyren Call-lite. At least Frontline agrees to bid on the special 10 megahertz they’re seeking.