Congress should consider legislation that would rescind a statutory mandate that the FCC reallocate and auction public safety spectrum in the T-band by 2021 and relocate incumbents by 2023, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released today. The report also said that the FCC is concerned about the impact to public safety of relocating systems.
Repurposing the frequencies was a requirement of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.
“Since the passage of legislation requiring the relocation of public safety users from, and auction of, the T-band radio spectrum, the potential consequences of these actions have become far more apparent,” GAO said in its report. “If FCC conducts such an auction, it is unclear that all public safety users in the affected areas will be able to relocate. If alternative spectrum is not available, public safety would be jeopardized in some of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Even if alternate available spectrum can be found, public safety users are likely to bear significant costs associated with relocating and reestablishing interoperability. These costs could go well beyond the revenue produced by such an auction.”
The Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2019 (HR 451), which was introduced in January by Rep. Elliot Engel (D., N.Y.), would rescind the T-band reallocation requirement. Similar legislation failed to pass in the 115th Congress.
GAO noted that the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) has estimated that relocating public safety systems in the 11 cities where the T-band is used by public safety entities could cost more than $5.9 billion and the federation says that alternative spectrum is not available (TR Daily, March 15, 2013).
GAO said the FCC has calculated the costs of relocating public safety users from the T-band at $5 billion to $6 billion. The agency estimates it would cost $4 billion extra to relocate business-industrial users, GAO said, although Congress is not requiring those users to be compensated for moving to other spectrum.
GAO said the “FCC has taken limited actions to address challenges and assist public safety users of the T-Band with the mandatory relocation. For example, FCC has taken steps to notify stakeholders, but officials told GAO they have not begun planning the auction. FCC officials acknowledged challenges the auction and relocation requirements present. FCC officials explained that public safety entities were licensed to operate on the T-Band in large metropolitan areas because other public safety spectrum was already heavily used. In March 2019, FCC briefed Congress on the auction’s challenges and concluded that all T-Band auction scenarios would fail. Nonetheless, FCC officials said the agency will conduct the auction unless the law is amended. While FCC provided information to Congress, it did not suggest changes to law in this instance.”
The report added that the “FCC previously told us that it had not determined whether business-industrial users would be required to relocate. However, in April 2019, FCC officials told us that it intends to implement the auction following the statute’s language. FCC officials stated that the Act does not expressly require it to auction spectrum licensed to business-industrial users, but officials also stated that [the] FCC may decide that it has the authority to auction that spectrum under a different statutory provision. Before conducting the auction, FCC must issue a notice, which includes a public comment period, to determine the auction procedures and requirements. FCC officials told us they have not progressed beyond the preliminary conceptual stages and do not have a precise timeline for the pre-auction process or auction. The officials explained that if business-industrial users relocate, they would face similar relocation challenges to that of public safety users and the Act does not mention them as eligible for relocation grants. According to FCC officials, licenses for business-industrial users outnumber those of public safety users on the T-Band in some areas.”
“The amount of proceeds that may be generated from the T-Band auction — which are, according to FCC, expected to be the sole source of federal funding to help cover the relocation costs incurred by public safety entities — is likely to be less than the total relocation costs,” GAO added. “FCC officials told us the T-Band has potentially low value because of limited demand by potential bidders in the auction. For example, FCC officials estimated that revenue for the entire T-Band would not exceed $2 billion. To reach this amount would require public safety and business-industrial users to relocate from the T-Band, which according to FCC estimates could cost between $9 and $10 billion.”
The report also noted that “NTIA is to make grants to cover relocation costs for the relocation of public safety entities in accordance with the Middle Class Tax Relief Act. However, NTIA officials told us that the agency has no dedicated funding to administer such a program and must wait for auction proceeds to stand one up. The officials also said that only when the auction concludes will NTIA know the total amount available and how best to disburse those funds for relocating agencies. Thus, designing a grant program, notifying eligible parties of available grants, evaluating applications, and issuing awards must all take place during the statutory 2-year relocation period. If agencies require the funds before they can move to other frequencies, it is unlikely that this migration can meet the two-year deadline. NTIA officials also stated that until they design the grant program, they do not have any relevant information to provide public safety stakeholders. NTIA officials said they would provide information on the grant program and begin making grants as soon as possible given the statutory requirement for public safety users to relocate within 2 years of the auction’s conclusion.”
GAO said it conducted case studies examining the impact that the loss of the T-band would have on public safety systems in Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, and Dallas–Fort Worth. The first three jurisdictions said they have not been able to identify suitable alternative spectrum.
T-band users in Dallas–Fort Worth “have had success transitioning off the T-Band,” the report said. “Two of the three public safety licensees we talked with told us they had already transitioned off the T-Band and noted that it was unrelated to the required T-Band auction.”
The report also said that FCC officials and a First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) official noted that “public safety users on the T-Band may subscribe to services on FirstNet’s nationwide public safety broadband network, which offers some voice functionality. However, officials said the network currently does not accommodate the need of public safety users for mission-critical voice functionality.”
Public safety groups welcomed the GAO report.
“The GAO report accurately reflects the need for public safety to keep the T-Band as it is needed for mission critical voice communications,” said NPSTC Executive Director Marilyn Ward. “As GAO points out, FirstNet will provide broadband capabilities and not replace in the distant future mission critical voice communications. We commend the GAO review and agree with their view that Congress should allow public safety to keep the T-Band which is needed to provide mission critical voice communications for public safety.”
Derek Poarch, executive director and chief executive officer of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, said, “The GAO report confirms that the right thing to do for public safety is to repeal the T-Band auction requirement.”
“The GAO report on the Required Auction of the T-Band confirms what the IAFC and other public safety organizations have stressed time and again: the auction of public safety spectrum in the T-Band threatens to undermine mission-critical communications in our nation’s largest metropolitan areas,” said the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “We urge Congress to follow GAO’s recommendations and adopt legislation enabling public safety’s continued use of the spectrum.” —Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org