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Big Telecom Looms in Public Safety Battle

Emergency preparedness officials will fan out this week on Capitol Hill to ask lawmakers to give them a valuable slice of broadband spectrum to establish a public safety communications network.

But behind this wholesome scene of law enforcement and firefighters roaming the halls of Congress is a fierce lobbying battle that has pitted the nation’s communications companies against each other.

At stake is access to prime wireless spectrum that penetrates deep into buildings. It is a piece of broadband real estate that AT&T and Verizon already have available to them and that their smaller competitors such as T-Mobile and Sprint deeply desire. AT&T and Verizon already obtained a good chunk of this valuable broadband in a Federal Communications Commission auction in 2008.

“The sad truth is that anytime you have something this valuable, you will have big companies interested,” said Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, an open Internet advocacy group.

The dispute is over whether the federal government should allocate the spectrum to public safety officials or auction it off to private companies, which would then allow local entities to roam their system in emergencies.

AT&T and Verizon have teamed up with public safety organizations in supporting the allocation of the spectrum, called the D Block, to local authorities. Police and fire officials say they need more wireless capability, though they have had access to a share of spectrum that Congress allotted them more than a decade ago.

That approach was recently backed by President Barack Obama, as well as Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has reintroduced legislation that would permit the allocation of the spectrum to public safety.

On the other side, T-Mobile and Sprint are supporting a plan by the FCC to auction off some of this spectrum, with the proceeds being used to help build communications infrastructure, such as transmission towers.

They contend that AT&T and Verizon oppose the auction because they don’t want the valuable spectrum to get into the hands of their competitors.

“It is basically a business proposition for them,” said Kathleen Ham, vice president of federal regulatory affairs for T-Mobile.

She took issue with AT&T and Verizon trying to ally themselves with public safety officials.

“It is very self-serving,” she said.

Ham acknowledged that her company was advocating a position that would be financially beneficial to T-Mobile. She said the spectrum in question is akin to “beachfront property” because it can penetrate deeper into buildings and extend longer distances.

“We don’t have any lower-band spectrum,” she said. “We would like some lower-band spectrum.”

Also supporting the auction approach is a coalition of small rural communications companies, which contend that auctioning off spectrum will help rural areas by bringing more competition into the market.

“Verizon and AT&T are trying to create a duopoly,” said Carrie Bennet, the general counsel for the Rural Telecommunications Group.

Proponents of the direct allocation of the spectrum to public safety argue that forcing local authorities to share the communications systems controlled by private companies would not work in emergencies. Once the spectrum is auctioned off, they say, the government can’t take it back if the emergency communication system becomes overloaded.

“If the D Block is commercially auctioned, public safety will be required to pre-empt commercial networks during emergencies to acquire needed capacity,” an AT&T spokeswoman said in a statement. “That’s unfair to our public safety community, who deserves sufficient dedicated resources, and it’s unfair to wireless consumers, who deserve reliable wireless communications in times of crisis.”

The public face for the lobbying push in favor of reallocating the spectrum is the Public Safety Alliance, a coalition made of groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Sheriffs’ Association.

Opponents of the spectrum reallocation allege that the Public Safety Alliance is heavily underwritten by AT&T and Verizon. The companies are sponsors of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials — which runs the coalition — along with other companies such as Motorola, which makes the security handsets used by safety officials.

Yucel Ors, an alliance spokesman who also works for APCO, said the suggestion that AT&T and Verizon were heavily funding the lobbying effort was inaccurate. Just because they sponsor APCO, “it does not imply you have any influence on our policies,” he said.

He noted that T-Mobile had also been a corporate sponsor. Neither Verizon nor AT&T officials responded to accusations that they were bankrolling public safety groups’ lobbying efforts.

T-Mobile and Sprint have formed their own coalition, Connect Public Safety Now, which includes a number of wireless companies that are lobbying for a spectrum  auction.

The telecom companies all have sizable lobbying teams in Washington, D.C. T-Mobile, for example, has tapped the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to help get its message out.

But AT&T and Verizon dwarf T-Mobile and Sprint in annual spending, shelling out more than $32.5 million combined on lobbying last year compared with $5.5 million for the smaller companies.

Both sides are hoping to appeal to the large freshman class and Republican leadership in the House.

Bennet said she pointed out to fiscally conscious Members that the auction approach could reap billions of dollars of revenue for the federal government.

That approach has the backing of Rep. Cliff Stearns, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

“I support the re-auction of the spectrum to a commercial carrier and using the proceeds to build out a network for emergency first responders or to be shared with a commercial carrier,” the Florida Republican said in a statement.

But auction opponents also have fans in the GOP leadership, most notably Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, who issued a statement saying the reallocation plan “will not only save lives, but will provide the stability and security that our economy needs to move forward.”

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