Verizon recently told the FCC that providing FirstNet with access to 50 megahertz of 4.9 GHz spectrum would result in a “substantial windfall” to AT&T worth more than $14 billion.

But AT&T says that’s not so.

In a June 20 filing with the FCC, AT&T said that under the proposal by the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA), AT&T would gain “no license, lease or other spectrum use authorization” for the 4.9 GHz band spectrum. Instead, the license would go to a band manager, which would allow the First Responder Network Authority (FNA) to use the 4.9 GHz band to support upgrades to the FirstNet network.

The 4.9 GHz band has been used by public safety for decades but it’s making headlines now because the FCC is considering changes to how it’s managed. Some groups, like PSSA, want the FCC to assign the 4.9 GHz band to the FirstNet Authority on behalf of public safety. Others oppose that idea, saying it should be left under the control of local public safety agencies and out of the hands of FirstNet, whose 700 MHz network is run by AT&T.

It’s all a little bit squirrelly because AT&T won the contract to provide FirstNet’s nationwide broadband network in 2017. With that 25-year contract, AT&T also won the right to use FirstNet’s 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum for its own commercial purposes. Some opponents to PSSA’s proposal have argued that FirstNet shouldn’t even be getting access to spectrum outside the 700 MHz band. (AT&T says FirstNet most definitely can use other spectrum bands.)

Complicating matters is the fact that FirstNet is governed by the government entity known as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). AT&T, a private entity, runs the FirstNet network, but it does so with the oversight of the FirstNet Authority under NTIA.

4.9 GHz’s history

In 2002, the FCC designated the 4.9 GHz band for public safety use, but it has since launched efforts to stimulate investment and expand the use of the band. Last year, the agency initiated a public comment period centered around how it will use a new band manager to oversee the band.

Since then, plenty of entities have commented, but AT&T has been mostly quiet until Friday’s filing. Its previous comment in the docket came over a year ago.

In its recent filing, AT&T explained that the 4.9 GHz license should go to a band manager, and the band manager would allow FirstNet to use the 4.9 GHz band to support upgrades to the nationwide broadband network for public safety.

“It is not a grant of ’50 megahertz of mid-band spectrum’ to AT&T,” the carrier said, adding that any contrary suggestion overlooks the fact FirstNet is an independent authority within the NTIA.

“Erroneously equating this statutorily-created agency and its statutorily-defined governance structure, which includes public safety representation on the FirstNet Board of Directors and the FirstNet Public Safety Advisory Committee, as nothing more than a branded arm of AT&T is insulting to the public safety community,” AT&T said.

Fierce reached out to AT&T for comment, but the operator declined to comment further.

A lot of people agree the band is underutilized. In fact, the PSSA maintains that the band is woefully under-utilized, citing a report that it had an implied utilization rate of just 8.3%, in part because there’s a limited vendor ecosystem supporting the band. According to the FCC, 3,541 licenses were issued in the band; state and local public safety agencies across the country use it to facilitate things like video streaming, backhaul and data connections.

CERCI: Not so fast

The Coalition for Emergency Response and Critical Infrastructure (CERCI), which disagrees with the PSSA proposal and is backed by Verizon and T-Mobile, quickly responded to AT&T’s filing on Friday.  

“This is a massive and illegal spectrum grab that would take valuable mid-band spectrum away from local public safety users. Not surprisingly, while trying to argue that the FNA needs the band to offer 5G to public safety users, AT&T fails to mention it already allows its FirstNet customers to access all of AT&T’s 5G spectrum,” he added. “The legal and policy theory it offers for assigning the spectrum to FNA strains basic logic and the law – it’s a poorly crafted nesting doll of bad licensing and legal theories designed solely to benefit AT&T. It also makes clear that existing public safety users will be cut off under its proposal.”

He pointed to comments from public safety users, such as the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority and CalTrans, that are opposed to PSSA’s proposal

“AT&T does not need this spectrum, but public safety agencies do. This filing confirms what CERCI has said all along – the PSSA proposal is a means to an end for AT&T, despite what the harm to public safety users might be,” Corey said.

Both CERCI and PSSA/AT&T claim broad support from the public safety community. AT&T also said in its filing that incumbent users in the 4.9 GHz would be protected under the PSSA proposal.

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