Public Safety Advocate: FCC Starts Process to Auction the T-Band

Last week, the FCC issued Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) PS Docket No. 13-42 to implement Section 6103 of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that established FirstNet. Section 6103 is the requirement for the return for auction of the T-Band spectrum, which has been used by eleven major-metro-area public-safety agencies since 1970. I believe the FCC was reluctant to release this NPRM even though Congress has been under constant pressure for the last three years to proceed with the repeal. However, since Congress has failed to pass the simplest of bills to repeal the giveback, the FCC is left with no other choice. Two bills, House Bill (H.R. 451) and Senate Bill (S.2748), contain only one simple, specific paragraph that does not obligate any federal funds yet neither has been passed. 

The FCC now finds itself in a position of having to move forward since the deadline for a competitive bidding plan is February 22, 2021. It should be noted that the FCC Chairman has, on two occasions, requested that Congress repeal the T-Band giveback. While the House has included the repeal language in a much more sweeping bill, it appears that bill will not be taken up by the Senate. 

I have a special interest in this docket and I will be filing comments on this NPRM. Congress had called for a spectrum giveback with the idea that new auctions would provide new funds for the U.S. Treasury. Therefore, when I was working with the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), I prepared several evaluations to determine which segments of public-safety spectrum might be returned to the FCC without having a significant negative impact on the public-safety community. These efforts began when bills were being drafted to establish a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN), and about a month before Congress passed the bill that created FirstNet, members of the PSA met and discussed spectrum giveback options. None of the options were good for public safety, so I was not able to make any recommendations. At that time, we vowed we would continue our efforts by pursuing reversal of any public-safety spectrum giveback included in any bill.

Only days before the Middle Class Tax Relief Bill passed, we learned Congress had chosen the T-Band for the giveback. Early 2012, the value of spectrum sold at auction was high and Members of Congress who selected the T-Band had visions of $Billions flooding into the U.S. Treasury from its auction. No one listened to the pleas from public safety and others who tried to explain that a T-Band giveback was not possible and even it if was, it would cause irreparable harm to public-safety communications capabilities in the eleven metro areas. 

I began my filing with an executive summary that I will flesh out in detail in the remainder of the document and I have decided to make this summary the focus of this issue of the Advocate. If you would like to comment or suggest additions, please contact me. For my part, I am hoping the House or Senate T-Band repeal bill will be passed into law in time to avoid further FCC action. Failing that, there will be an auction. I would like to see a benevolent company, organization, or group bid on and win all of the T-Band spectrum and devise a way to return it to the public-safety community. 

As I have often pointed out, the value of this spectrum made up of an assortment of 6-MHz pieces in eleven metro markets ought not be attractive to anyone considering its use for anything other than its function today: To provide critical communications to most if not all public-safety agencies within an 80-mile radius of any of these eleven metro areas. I will make my entire NPRM comments document available to you once it is filed. In the meantime, here is the Executive Summary.

NPRM Executive Summary

Before the

Federal Communications Commission

Washington, D.C. 20554

in the Matter of

Reallocation of 470-512 MHz (T-Band) Spectrum

PS Docket No. 13-42


Andrew M. Seybold, Sr.
CEO and Principal Analyst


            When the United States Congress passed the Middle-Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, section 6103 of said bill directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reallocate the T-Band spectrum (TV Channels 14-20, 470-512 MHz), which was then and still is populated by “public safety eligibles.” It also called for a system of competitive bidding to grant new initial licenses for use of the spectrum to be completed by February 22, 2021, and relocation of public-safety entities from the T-Band no later than two years after that. Auction proceeds are to be made available to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to issue grants as necessary to cover relocation costs for public-safety entities that are required to relocate.

At the time, Congress inserted section 6103 into the law to require what is known as the T-Band to be returned to the FCC. In 2012, Members of Congress seemed to believe that once cleared and auctioned by the FCC, the T-Band spectrum would bring in $Billions in proceeds not only to fund relocation of public-safety T-Band users but to also help defray some of the United States’ National Debt. There have been a number of FCC auctions since then and the results of these auctions indicate proceeds from a T-Band auction now would be much lower.[1]

            Since 2012, the FCC has continued with spectrum auctions, and one of these provided the $7 Billion funding the same law commits to what is now The FirstNet Authority, an independent authority reporting to the NTIA. The 2015 AWS-3[2]auction was highly successful with total provisional winning bids coming in at more than $44 Billion. In 2017, the FCC announced the $19.8 Billion[3] results of the two-phase 600-MHz auction even though it did not receive bids on all of the spectrum that had been allocated for the auction. According to press articles,[4] the price per potential user (pop) was $0.38 for the 600-MHz auction while the AWS spectrum went for $2.71 per pop. It should be noted that spectrum included in both of these auctions was either in use nationwide or could be used on a nationwide basis.

This NPRM is for specific 6-MHz portions of the 470–512-MHz band that are only available within an 80-mile radius of a major metropolitan area, and not all of the spectrum is available in all eleven markets. Channel 14 is only available in seven of the markets while the B through G 6-MHz segments are available in six or fewer. While the FCC’s NPRM provides information about potential interference from existing TV stations located on these channels outside the 80-mile radius, it is common knowledge that as TV repacking reaches completion, the number of interference complaints from existing public-safety T-Band users has escalated dramatically.[5]

            In 2013,[6] the National Public Safety Technology Council (NPSTC) published work documents that were updated in 2016[7] and comprehensive reports about the use of the T-Band by the public-safety community that included the number of licensed systems and users, an in-depth report on where these public-safety entities could be relocated within existing public-safety Land Mobile Radio (LMR) spectrum, and the cost of relocation. Based on the facts presented above and discussed further in the body of this document, it is my belief that:

  1. Existing public-safety T-Band license holders and their mobile and portable users cannot be relocated to any existing public-safety LMR spectrum because there are few-to-no LMR channels available within their areas of operation;
  2. The $Billions it will cost to relocate these users will be much higher than any proceeds from auctioning what is, at this point, orphaned spectrum in the eleven metro areas;
  3. And even if there was available spectrum and funding, the timeline specified in the law is not sufficient for the public-safety community to build new infrastructure, buy and install new mobile devices, and acquire new handheld devices. Both existing T-Band and new LMR systems would have to remain in operation until such time as the new LMR channels were fully operational and providing the same coverage as today’s T-Band systems. 

It appears the highest and best use of T-Band spectrum is for public safety to continue to use this spectrum for its critical-communications requirements. The potential value of T-Band spectrum at auction will not begin to meet the needs of relocation, there is no spectrum available for relocation of the T-Band public-safety population, and the FCC acknowledges in the NPRM that it has no plans to relocate the non-public safety business and industrial users that are also operating legally in the T-Band[8].

Finally, unless Congress acts quickly on “repeal the T-Band bills” pending in the House (H.R. 451[9]) and the Senate (S.2748[10]), the FCC will be forced to proceed with actions outlined in this NPRM. If this happens, I believe the auction will fail to generate anywhere near the amount of money required for relocation. This will reflect negatively on both Congress and the FCC. 

Winding Down

While we are all practicing social distancing and staying at home, except of course, those who are providing essential services for us including the entire public-safety community, a number of organizations are presenting many really great webinars for us. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) offers a host of webinars on a variety of topics to help train fire-service folks. One that is running now is for Hazmat and Rescue Training. Other organizations that are presenting webinars include The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the Public Safety Network (PSN), the Public Safety Broadband Technology Association (PSBTA), The FirstNet Authority, FirstNet (Built with AT&T), APCO, Urgent CommunicationsMission Critical MagazineRCR, and many others. If you are working from home, I suggest you take part in as many of these great sessions as you can. Meanwhile, I am using some of my time participating in and listening to webinars and updating my skills using FEMA course materials. 

Next week’s Advocate will be a Throw-Back Thursday (TBT) edition. As I continue my research for a book about how FirstNet became FirstNet, I have been re-reading many of my early Advocates. The one for next week will be almost ten years old and it was written two years before FirstNet was created by Congress and signed into law. I think it is a good review of what many within the public-safety community, the vendor communities, and those in government were doing at the time in pursuit of a nationwide interoperable network. I hope it will be interesting and educational to anyone who was not following the early days of FirstNet. 

FirstNet has approved some new products and applications for use on the network and I have reached out to several of the vendors for more details. I hope to be able to provide an update on some of these in the next month or so. Meanwhile, I hope all of us involved in the public-safety community continue to support those on the front lines, and that those involved specifically in public safety continue to provide new tools, features, and functions to make our first responders’ lives better and safer.

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.












2 Comments on "Public Safety Advocate: FCC Starts Process to Auction the T-Band"

  1. Ryan Poltermann | July 15, 2020 at 10:24 pm | Reply

    Hi Andy,
    I didn’t see it mentioned in the Executive Summary, but I’m assuming that the GAO report will be referenced in your response! To share with everyone, it was about a year ago:
    Quick summary:
    “In 3 of the 4 metropolitan areas we examined, officials said they haven’t found a T-Band alternative. A recent FCC study also found few options.

    We recommended Congress consider allowing public safety organizations to keep using the T-Band.”

  2. Ryan, I have listed the GAO multiple times in my earlier articles and they will be mentioned in this filing also. However, the issue here is not to make Congress aware of have many organizations have asked to have the T-Band repealed, but rather to respond specifically to the NPRM for the T-band Auction. The fact that lots of organizations including the FCC and the FCC chairman have asked Congress to repeal the T-band does not enter into the response to the NPRM since this is a response to a notice which, I believe, is being issued not because the FCC wants to start an auction of the T-Band but simply because the existing law which can only be changed by Congress which has, at this point, failed to take action. So my comments to this NRPM will have more to do with what I believe will be a failed auction rather than who has already informed Congress that they support the repeal the T-band.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.