Verizon CEO Asks Rosenworcel Not to Hand 4.9 GHz Band to AT&T

Allowing AT&T's public safety network access to the 4.9 GHz band would be a substantial windfall, according to Verizon.

Verizon CEO Asks Rosenworcel Not to Hand 4.9 GHz Band to AT&T
Photo of Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg from Offshore Norge

WASHINGTON, July 2, 2024 – Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg met last week with the head of the Federal Communications Commission to ask the agency not to hand valuable airwaves to AT&T’s FirstNet wireless public safety network.

Vestberg told FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel that “providing AT&T with access to an additional 50 megahertz of mid-band spectrum valued at over $14 billion and available for commercial use would result in a substantial windfall, particularly at a time when the Commission and other policymakers are working to develop a pipeline for mid-band spectrum,” according to an ex parte filing posted July 1.

Vestberg was referring to the 4.9 GHz band, spectrum which the agency has reserved for public safety users. Commenters have suggested that the FCC give FirstNet the ability to operate nationwide in the band, much to the ire of other wireless carriers who see this as a handout to AT&T.

AT&T was contracted in 2017 to build out a nationwide wireless network for public safety agencies and first responders, known as FirstNet, using 20 MHz in the 700 MHz band. It’s managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s FirstNet Authority, but AT&T can use excess capacity in the band for commercial purposes.

The network’s initial construction finished in December 2023, connecting more than 27,000 public safety agencies.

In January 2023, the FCC proposed instituting a band manager to administer the 4.9 GHz band. It was an effort to increase utilization of the band, which commenters say has been underutilized at a time when demand for spectrum is on the rise.

A group called the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA), led by a former vice chairman of FirstNet, proposed handing the FirstNet Authority a nationwide license to use the 4.9 GHz band for its network. The FirstNet Authority would work closely with the band manager under the proposal.

Other wireless carriers, including Verizon, T-Mobile, and UScellular, did not like the PSSA plan. Along with some law enforcement groups, they formed the Coalition for Emergency Response and Critical Infrastructure (CERCI) in November 2023 to lobby the agency against PSSA’s proposal, characterizing it as a giveaway of valuable spectrum to AT&T.

“The wholesale licensing or leasing of this band to FirstNet and, therefore, to AT&T for integration into its commercial, consumer-focused network (or an arrangement that accomplishes the same end under a thinly veiled “shared use” nomenclature), would be antithetical to the FCC’s locally controlled public safety primacy commitment,” the group wrote in a recent filing.

For its part, AT&T weighed in with a rare filing on June 20 that supported opening up the 4.9 GHz band to FirstNet.

The company acknowledged that “AT&T may use excess network capacity on [FirstNet] on a secondary, interruptible basis,” but said that the proposal “is not a grant of ‘50 megahertz of mid-band spectrum to AT&T. Any contrary suggestion overlooks that the [FirstNet Authority] is ‘an independent authority within the NTIA.’”

Both CERCI and PSSA have marshaled public safety organizations to support their case before the FCC. Representatives from major cities, state transportation agencies, and the National Sheriffs Association oppose handing the 4.9 GHz band to FirstNet, while the National Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and other law enforcement and first responder groups have written agency staff backing the PSSA proposal.

The FirstNet Authority has commented in the FCC docket, reiterating it would use any 4.9 GHz spectrum “for public safety on a primary basis.”

NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson told House lawmakers at a May oversight hearing that the agency was not taking a side in the dispute.

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