Photograph by Mike Albans — New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Phone makers join IT and security firms in a novel broadband bid.

By Jeff John Roberts
June 7, 2016

Companies spanning the telecom, tech, and security industries announced a partnership on Tuesday that seeks to win a $6.5 billion contract to build a national emergency network. Their bid also contains a major economic twist that could, if successful, see the companies shake up how companies buy and sell precious wireless spectrum.

The consortium, which is holding a press conference at 10 a.m. ET, includes wireless network makers Nokia NOK and Ericsson ERIC , Intel Security INTC , and Harris Corporation HRS , a defense and IT contractor.

The companies together are backing an upstart called Rivada Mercury, which is leading the bid to create a long-awaited communications platform for emergency responders across the country. On the ground, this would mean building the country’s first nationwide 4G LTE network for public safety.

The origins of the proposed emergency network, which has reportedly attracted two other bidders in addition to Rivada, dates back more than a decade.

It began when the 9/11 Commission, citing snafus that snarled telecommunications on that tragic day, called for a dedicated platform for emergency communications. Today the goal of the proposed platform is to ensure firefighters and other first responders can always talk to each other, and across state lines, even in the event of a major blow to urban infrastructure.

Congress gave the go-ahead in 2012, but the project was tangled in bureaucracy and technical disputes until last year. But since then FirstNet, the government agency responsible, has moved it forward, and is expected to select a winner by the fall, allowing construction to begin in 2017.

The winning bidder will receive at least $6.5 billion to build out towers and other infrastructure needed for a national network. But the real prize, in the eyes of telecom types, is the 20 MHz the winning bidder will receive to operate the network.

The reason the spectrum is so valuable is it sits in Section D of the 700 MHz block, which is considered the beachfront realty of the airwaves. It is highly suitable for transmitting the sort of wireless data consumers gobble on their cell phones.

While FirstNet wants bidders (unsurprisingly) to guarantee reliable emergency service, the process also lets them deploy the spectrum for commercial purposes. This is possible since the vast bulk of the 20MHz will not be needed by first responders on any given day.

In the event of a disaster, the network operator will be able to flip a switch and allocate the entire block for emergency purposes. Rivada co-CEO Declan Ganley described the technique to Fortune as “ruthless pre-emption.” Most of the time, however, Rivada (or whoever wins the bid) will get to sling the spectrum as they wish.

Selling Spectrum on the Open Market

A national emergency network will likely be a useful service, and may even offer room for innovation — some have floated the idea of an app store full of home-spun apps for firefighters. But if Rivada Networks wins the bid, the real disruption could come in the way bandwidth is bought and sold.

Currently, big telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon acquire spectrum and then hoard it. They deploy it, of course, but only to their own subscribers or occasionally to small discount resellers called MVNOs, which they largely control.

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What Rivada Networks wants to do is create something closer to a commodities arrangement. The company wants to take all that prime 700 MHz spectrum and sell it on the spot market, and even create a futures market.

The scheme may sound far-fetched but for the recent surge in spectrum demand, in which everyone from car companies to home appliance makers are scrambling to stuff their products with Internet features. A source close to the company says Rivada has already been in discussion with utilities, automakers, and MVNOs about selling spectrum a la carte.

In a release, Rivada’s co-CEO Joe Euteneuer described the overall pitch like this:

“As a pioneer in dynamic spectrum arbitrage, Rivada Mercury’s innovative technology will both fund the FirstNet build out and sustained operation and maintenance by selling excess capacity to commercial users.”

The question, of course, is whether the agency receiving the bid will buy into Rivada’s vision enough to award the contract.

High-Stakes Bid

If FirstNet awards the bid to Rivada, the consortium will receive at least $6.5 billion and a chance to remake the broadband market. If it loses, it will get nothing.

One factor that could tip the bid in Rivada’s favor is money. Under the terms of the FirstNet process, companies that bid must pledge to pay a minimum of $5.65 billion to the government over 25 years in exchange for using the spectrum. If Rivada thinks its open market spectrum plan will pull in a lot, it may have pledged to pay out a lot more when the bids closed at the end of May.

Rivada also has a formidable team in place. Ganley ran telecom operations during Hurricane Katrina, while his co-CEO, Euteneuer, was CFO at Sprint S and Comcast CMCSA . The company has also named former governors and recent presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Martin O’Malley to its board.

Finally, the country’s broad-ranging partnerships, including Harris Corporation, which has a long track record of emergency services, could persuade the government that Rivada has the chops to do the job. (The company is also partnering with two other familiar telecom names, Black & Veatch and Fujitsu Network Communications, to help with back-end engineering.)

On the other hand, Rivada isn’t the only one bidding. While FirstNet’s procurement rules do not permit the government to disclose the bidders, the source close to Rivada believes that there are two other bids, including one led by AT&T T and Motorola MSI , and another by a fellow upstart.

Any bid by AT&T would receive strong consideration given the company’s size and its deep influence in Washington lobbying circles. While AT&T’s interest in FirstNet has been reported by the trade press, the company has yet to announce a bid. A company spokesperson, reached by phone and email, did not provide a formal answer as to the nature of AT&T’s bid, or even confirm that a bid was submitted.

Meanwhile, rival phone giant Verizon vz has likewise been identified in the press as a contender, but has yet to announce its intentions.

“Federal contracting rules prohibit us from commenting until after the contract has been officially awarded,” said a Verizon spokesperson.

FirstNet is expected to announce the outcome in the fall. The result could deliver the U.S. a national platform for emergency broadcasts—and possibly a brand new type of broadband market.

This story was updated at 12:45ET to include Verizon’s statement. It was corrected at 5:30pm to describe Nokia and Ericsson as wireless network firms, not phone makers.

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