Urgent Matters

Heed rebanding's lessons before beginning 700 MHz broadband project

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Last week, Sprint Nextel submitted its monthly report to the FCC updating the status of 800 MHz rebanding, which serves as a stark reminder that executing policies can be much more difficult than making policy decisions, no matter how difficult or controversial they are.

The good news is rebanding progress continues, with 80% of the non-border public-safety licensees in the 800 MHz band having completed the reconfiguration, according to the report. Of course, the bad news is that we were supposed to be at this stage in a supposed three-year project about four years ago, and it's going to take even more time before this massive project is completed.

Why is rebanding taking so long? There's plenty of blame to go around — from Sprint Nextel to the Transition Administrator to public-safety licensees to the FCC — but there is little to be gained at this juncture by finger-pointing or reiterating the well-chronicled problems associated with this process. (We do take this moment to again write that we hope the State Department can reach a much-anticipated deal with Mexico soon, so licensees along the Mexican border can at least get started on the rebanding process.)

But there are lessons to be learned from the rebanding experience that should be avoided as the federal government embarks on a similarly challenging engineering project — the deployment of a nationwide public-safety broadband network using LTE in the 700 MHz band.

One encouraging aspect is that the LTE network is being considered on a nationwide basis, instead of the piecemeal approach to rebanding that resulted in thousands of individual deals being negotiated — often arbitrated — a manner that was almost always inefficient, if not ineffective. The ability to do this is an inherent advantage in building the public-safety LTE network compared to rebanding — it is easier to build a network than to retrofit a network while it is in use and cannot be taken off the air, even for a minute.

But the potential still remains for many other snags associated with rebanding — government failing to deliver decisions on key policy questions in a timely manner, processes and procedures trumping common-sense actions, and the lack of incentives to get parties to make decisions — to occur, if the FirstNet board and NTIA are not careful. These are risks for any large project, and projects don't come much bigger than this one.

With so much at stake, it's vital that the FirstNet board be prudent in its decision-making and consider public/private partnerships that can make the broadband network economically viable and operationally useful for public safety. But the key decision-makers will have to resist the temptation to get bogged down too much in procedural matters that do not have a clear positive impact on the eventual network.

More than doubling the projected timeline associated with 800 MHz rebanding has been an inconvenience, at the very least. Public safety cannot afford similar delays with this broadband network.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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