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U.S. eyes early summer for airwaves auction process

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Communications Commission plans to begin a process in a few months aimed at auctioning airwaves that failed to garner enough interest during the 2008 spectrum auction.

The segment, called the D-block, is part of the 700 megahertz band of the airwaves that raised about $19 billion for the U.S. government when other blocks were sold to carriers in 2008. But the D-Block did not sell because carriers did not like some of the conditions for use.

Companies are waiting for the FCC to issue the terms and conditions, if any, to be attached to the auction for use of the D block airwaves.

Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau, told Reuters on Friday, after speaking to state and local emergency officials who want the D block for public safety use, that the FCC could issue a notice of inquiry “early summer” but a final decision has not been made.

The auction, which is planned for commercial purposes, could take place in the first or second quarter of 2011, he said.

The opening of the 10-megahertz D-block could be welcome news for smaller carriers such as T-Mobile, the U.S. unit of Deutsche Telekom AG, which wants to acquire more spectrum to better compete with powerhouses AT&T Inc and Verizon Wireless, a venture of Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc.

By deciding what to do with the D block, the FCC can move forward with building a nationwide wireless communications system for police, ambulances and firefighters who could not communicate with each other during the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

The FCC plans to create an Emergency Response Interoperability Center at the FCC to establish better communications among the array of emergency workers, including hospitals.

The FCC has told state and local emergency officials seeking more spectrum the agency wants to allow public safety workers access to the entire 700 megahertz band when necessary, and carriers that hold licenses in that band will be compensated accordingly.

FCC officials said they will ask Congress to fund the emergency preparedness network, which could cost between $12 billion and $16 billion to build and operate over a period of 10 years.

Public safety workers have already been allocated one-eighth of the 700 megahertz band of the spectrum, which was vacated by the broadcasters during the digital television transition.

The FCC also plans to reallocate a larger portion of spectrum, including some held by broadcasters, to wireless companies anticipating a shortage, as more Americans surf the Internet on their mobile devices.

Plans to auction the D block and other airwaves and establish an emergency network were some of recommendations in the FCC’s National Broadband Plan released earlier this week.

Reporting by John Poirier; editing by Andre Grenon

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