By Barry Levine / Mobile Tech Today. Updated January 15, 2008.
There will be 214 bidders at the much-awaited spectrum auction later this month by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), but the recent demise of Frontline Wireless has raised questions about a national public-safety network.
In a statement released Monday, the FCC identified the applicants who are qualified to bid in the 700-MHz band auction, set to begin Jan. 24. The bidding itself, for about 1,200 licenses, will be conducted over the Internet and phone.
Replacement for Frontline?
The approved applicants include some expected names, such as Google (called Google Airwaves in the list), AT&T, Cox Wireless, Qualcomm and Verizon Wireless.
But it also includes some less-discussed applicants, such as Chevron USA, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Spectrum Management, and a variety of small-to-midsize companies.
Frontline Wireless is still in the approved applicants list, although it announced last week that it was ceasing operations, reportedly because it was unable to complete its financing.
Headed by a group of executives that included former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, Frontline had been expected to be the leading bidder for a national wireless network that would provide communications among public-safety agencies during an emergency. The spectrum for that network will be offered at a discount, but it will require a private company to share those airwaves with police, firefighters and other public personnel during emergencies.
Bill Ho, an analyst at Current Analysis, said the question now is whether other major companies will bid in the FCC spectrum auction. Ho expected Frontline would outsource the operation to a carrier, and noted much of the spectrum in the FCC auction is composed of regional blocks, which could mesh well with certain bidders' objectives.
As one example, Ho noted that "Chevron has oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico," and a block of spectrum in that area could support its operations.
Chance of a Lifetime
The auction, which Ho described as "the chance of a lifetime," has the makings of an epic event.
For one thing, the lead-up to this auction had included lobbying by an alliance of organizations and companies, spearheaded by Google, to require open access for about one-third of the spectrum to be auctioned. This included the capability for any outside, compatible device and non-malicious software to be used on those frequencies, a requirement that the FCC eventually adopted.
Although other open-access requests, such as requiring that the winner make the bandwidth available on a wholesale basis to third-party resellers, was not adopted, several initially reluctant major carriers, including AT&T and Verizon Wireless, have now declared their support for open networks.
The networks resulting from the auction can be particularly valuable, because frequencies in the 700-MHz band can penetrate walls and various obstacles more effectively than other frequencies. They have been used for analog television since the beginning of the medium, but are being vacated as U.S. TV goes completely digital.