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Summary:

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 […]

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 http://www.mercatus.org/), 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.

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  1. GigaOM » Doerr, Barksdale on the Frontline Monday, April 9, 2007

    [...] upcoming land grab over analog TV spectrum is getting more high profile investors. The New York Times says that John Doerr, James Barksdale [...]

  2. I am not a Cyren Call employee or anything but I’m unsure if your post was quite fair. The public safety communications systems in the US are a disaster with outdated equipment and very limited interoperability. Just allocating spectrum to public safety does not cure this problem. Once the spectrum is allocated a lengthy standards setting process will ensue and then someone has to pny up the tens of billions required to refit all communications devices for first responders across the country. Given scarcity of government funds this is unlikely to occur.

    What Cyren Call’s proposal brings to the table is not just about spectrum but also a means of funding the huge dollars required to refit all the first responders across the country and doing it quickly. Obviously the encumbents like Verizon, et al are desparate to kill the proposal as it would create another, well funded, national competitor.

    They may not succeed but it is a very creative idea at solving what is a real problem for our country.

  3. Startup Toolbox Monday, July 23, 2007

    [...] FCC is putting up for auction next year a slice of radio spectrum that will go dark when analog TV is shut down net year, and is due to set the rules for the auction [...]

  4. Zac Garrett :: Technology Geek Friday, September 14, 2007

    Analog TV Channels Going Dark, Now What?

    In February 2009 TV broadcasters will be forced to disable analog TV broadcasting. Thus freeing up the spectrum for other uses. This is a huge deal seeing that these wireless frequencies are very powerful. Analog TV signals are capable of going great dist

  5. ReelSmart.com :: Video, Technology, Digital LifeStyle, Macintosh Tips, and Opinions » AT&T Buys 700MHz Spectrum Licenses for $2.5 Billion Tuesday, October 9, 2007

    [...] Want to know more about the 700 MHz Spectrum? See the excellent posts on GigaOm 700 MHz Explained in 10 Steps and Inside the 700 MHz spectrum land grab [...]

  6. ReelSmart.com :: Video, Technology, Digital LifeStyle, Macintosh Tips, and Opinions » AT&T Buys 700MHz Spectrum Licenses for $2.5 Billion Tuesday, October 9, 2007

    [...] Want to know more about the 700 MHz Spectrum? See the excellent posts on GigaOm 700 MHz Explained in 10 Steps and Inside the 700 MHz spectrum land grab [...]

  7. Technology Geek Saturday, October 20, 2007

    Analog TV Channels Going Dark, Now What?

    In February 2009 TV broadcasters will be forced to disable analog TV broadcasting. Thus freeing up the spectrum for other uses. This is a huge deal seeing that these wireless frequencies are very powerful. Analog TV signals are capable of going great dist

  8. Web Liquid | thinking:returns » Blog Archive » Google goes mobile with Android Tuesday, November 6, 2007

    [...] of people at the lowest price possible?” makes a bid very possible and significant. Drew Clarke at GigaOM.com has an informative piece on the 700MHz [...]

  9. Can anyone explain this to me in terms I can understand? The idea that your can just push TV stations off their present spectrum assignments is just too hard to understand. What will it cost them?

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