Republican lawmakers are proposing that the D Block of 700 MHz spectrum – the one slice of spectrum that failed to attract adequate bids in the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction – be reallocated for strictly commercial use and re-auctioned.

Proceeds would be used to fund the construction of a nationwide emergency communications network. The plan came up yesterday in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The D Block was originally designated for dual-use. The plan was that the winning bidder(s) would build the network and lease spectrum to service providers for commercial services. Emergency response organizations would get preferential use of the spectrum when needed; commercial interests could use it at all other times.

It remains a problem that different emergency response groups cannot communicate with each other because they use different radio systems that operate in different segments of the airwaves.

The D Block plan was to solve this interoperability problem. The argument that arose in Congress yesterday was about whether the D Block failed to attract an adequate bid because the concept of dual-use spectrum is inherently flawed, or if the idea is sound but the flaw was in the process of defining and auctioning the D Block.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin took the former tack in his written statement: "It would have been better to take the auction proceeds and provide the public safety community with the resources needed to build their own interoperable network. But we do not have the authority to directly fund such a network. As a result, the Public/Private Partnership was the only means available to us to address this crucial issue." 

Even Democratic FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein carped that the dual-use proposal had dubious prospects. Even so, they argued that the dual-use concept was undermined by rushing into the auction without properly formulating the idea.

Copps argued forcefully for having a very specific plan if the D Block spectrum is to be re-auctioned, with the expectation that it will be used for both commercial and emergency services.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Cliff Stearns both seized on the idea of re-auctioning the D Block for commercial-only use, according to wire reports.

The notion met with immediate resistance from the majority, however. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) said he was "presently unmoved" by suggestions that the block should be auctioned for "purely commercial use" and the proceeds handed to public safety.

"At this moment, I consider such an approach to be an admission that we are not serious about attaining true interoperability," Dingell said.

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