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Airwaves auction fails to achieve major goal

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Times Staff Writer

Despite raising a record $19.6 billion, the government’s recent auction of prime airwaves was branded a failure by several lawmakers Tuesday for failing to accomplish its major goal: producing a national wireless network that would allow police and firefighters to share information during disasters and terrorist attacks.

The Federal Communications Commission is heading back to the drawing board to determine the best way to create a nationwide public safety network after no private-sector partners emerged during the auction, Chairman Kevin J. Martin said.

“Our work in other areas may bring telecommunications benefits to consumers, but the ability of public safety agencies to communicate is a matter of life and death,” Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) said during a hearing of the House telecommunications subcommittee.

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Some Republicans had another major criticism, accusing Google Inc. of “gaming” the auction. They said the Internet search giant bid only to assure that new provisions would kick in on a large swath of the spectrum allowing people to use any device or application -- including ad-supported services Google wants to offer. Without Google, the spectrum might not have attracted the minimum $4.6-billion bid required to trigger the openness rules.

Those lawmakers also criticized Martin for pushing the open-access requirements, which they argued lowered the demand for those airwaves and probably cost the government billions of dollars. Verizon won the airwaves for $4.74 billion, while the rest of the auction produced three times as much per unit of spectrum.

Google had said that it was prepared to buy the spectrum, but that its main priority was to assure the rules kicked in. Spokesman Adam Kovacevich said the company was “proud” of its role in helping open part of the closed wireless world to new devices and applications.

“This auction generated not only a record amount for the U.S. Treasury, but also historic new rights for wireless consumers as a direct result of Google’s bidding,” he said.

Martin defended the auction against bipartisan criticism, noting that it raised about $500 million more than the agency’s previous 68 spectrum sales combined.

“The auction stands as the most successful FCC auction ever conducted, but there’s still more work that needs to be done,” he said.

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That includes revamping plans to create a nationwide public-safety network. To build such a network, estimated to cost at least $6 billion, the FCC has tried to lure a private company by allowing it to share those airwaves with emergency workers.

Congress gave public safety some of the airwaves being abandoned by TV stations as part of the 2009 switch to all-digital signals. In the auction of the rest of the spectrum, the FCC offered a piece next to the public-safety portion that could be combined to produce a joint network. The catch: Commercial customers would give priority to police and firefighters during emergencies.

But that piece, called the D block, received only one bid, for $472 million, far below the $1.3- billion minimum.

Democrats and Republicans warned that the country was living on borrowed time as it tried to fix the major communications problems that emergency workers faced during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) and some other Republicans pushed a plan to auction the D block solely for commercial use. They say removing the sharing requirement would generate billions of dollars to help pay for a separate public-safety network. But Martin said Congress would have to authorize such a plan.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said a public/private partnership was the best option and could work if the FCC adjusted the rules to encourage more bidders. He suggested selling the public-safety spectrum in six regional chunks.

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jim.puzzanghera @latimes.com

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