The Nextel Spectrum Swap Is Good Enough, Now Let's Do It
Well, this post definitely falls under the heading of Politics, as it has to do with the ongoing war of rhetoric surrounding the “Nextel Spectrum Swap” issue that we have discussed previously here at Techdirt. At issue is Nextel cell phone towers interfering with public safety (fire, police, etc.) radios in the 800MHz range, and Nextel proposal to fix the problem by swapping their 800 frequencies for some high-value 1.9GHz channels. As we’ve said in the past, this swap would constitute a windfall for Nextel, since they get some high-value spectrum without having to bid for it at a free-market auction, but we have oft said that the benefits of saving public-safety lives is more important than any single carrier’s windfall. The public safety associations agree, but the other wireless carriers most certainly do not. Yesterday, a scathing article was written in the Washington Times, accusing the FCC of abusing their power and granting a sweetheart deal to Nextel. While we agree that Nextel got a windfall, I counter-accuse the article of being grossly dis-ingenuous: the article (suspiciously) states only the negative aspects of the spectrum swap plan, and neglects the following important points: 1) Nextel is also paying by giving up spectrum at 800MHz; 2) There are lives on the line, and the swap will help preserve them – any plan that does not have Nextel’s enthusiastic buy-in will progress slowly, with lobbying and heel-dragging (by Nextel in that case), all while firemen are at increased risk of burning to death; 3) The article accuses Nextel of causing the interference problem by interfering with public-safety radio, but Nextel has lawfully operated their network according to the terms of their licenses. It is possibly a regulatory error long ago that allowed this interference to exist, but it’s not Nextel’s fault. Public safety radio also interferes with Nextel, so does that make it their “fault”?; 4) The adopted plan, with payments of about $2.5B is less of a windfall than the Nextel proposal which only offered $800M. 5) Nextel will also have to undergo additional high internal expenditures to migrate to 1.9GHz; 6) A hard rule of RF science is that the 800MHz frequency actually has better propagation characteristics than 1.9GHz – more than double the range. 1.9GHz is only “better” because more equipment is available at that range. 7) The article suggests that the public would be better off with an incremental revenue of $2.5B which the spectrum would yield at auction, but the article does not attach any public benefit to the increased safety and effectiveness of reliable emergency radio use. Do you care more about treasury revenue than you would about your house burning down because the fire captain could not call for backup? To conclude, this swap deal is not an “end-run” around congressional authority by the FCC. It is the FCC trying to fix a previous regulatory error in as expedient a manner as possible, specifically because lives are at stake. I don’t have any financial or business relationship with Nextel. I wonder if the authors of the Washington Times article have any financial or relationship ties with any telecom players. I can appreciate an argument against the swap deal (because it isn’t perfect), but I don’t see how an impartial author would produce such a one-sided piece as the Times article.