Urgent Matters

Ten years later, 800 MHz rebanding proves to be an enlightening exercise

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It has taken much longer than originally expected, but 800 MHz rebanding is complete in most of the United States 10 years after the FCC established a plan for the spectral reconfiguration of the band. Was it worth the effort?

“I don’t know whether this rebanding thing will work or not, but I can guarantee you this: There’s no way this is going to be finished in three years. There’s just too much to do.”

This quote was uttered to me in early 2005 by a public-safety official who was standing in line for food during a break taken at a meeting being conducted in the Tomorrowland Hotel at Walt Disney World, where the ambitious three-year schedule for 800 MHz reconfiguration had just been unveiled.

My thoughts turned to this statement recently as I realized that a significant anniversary was approaching. Exactly 10 years ago today, FCC commissioners approved a plan to reconfigure the 800 MHz band in a manner that would spectrally separate public-safety LMR systems from commercial cellular networks—primarily the iDEN systems owned by Nextel Communications—in an effort to prevent interference to the mission-critical networks used by first responders.

Nextel Communications officials spent months deliberating whether to accept the FCC rebanding deal—this was not a mandate to the carrier, because the plan called for the company to pay for the entire process—but eventually did so. In the interim, the FCC appointed BearingPoint to lead the team that would act as the 800 MHz Transition Administrator (or TA, as it would become known). This was followed soon by the announcement that Nextel planned to merge with Sprint, which assumed the obligation of paying for rebanding activities.

During the meeting at the Tomorrowland Hotel, TA officials outlined a four-phase process to execute rebanding—a plan that was supposed to begin in July 2005 and end in July 2008, with the caveat that the final phase could not begin until international treaties were signed with Canada and Mexico.

Today, that timeline seems absolutely laughable, but the fact today is that rebanding largely is complete. During the month of June, 10 NPSPAC regions completed 800 MHz rebanding, leaving only four non-border licensees in the entire country that still have to reband their LMR systems, according to Sprint’s filing with the FCC last week. All rebanding work along the Canadian border also is complete, except in the state of Washington.

Of course, most of the remaining 800 MHz rebanding work is located along the U.S.-Mexico border, largely because delays in reaching a spectrum treaty with Mexico resulted in the rebanding process not starting in earnest until August of last year.

From the beginning of this process, industry experts said that completing the reconfiguration process along the Mexican border would be the most challenging part of rebanding, for both technical and political reasons. Now that a plan is in place, there remain some lingering concerns about who will pay for rebanding on the Mexican side of the border and whether there will be difficulties synchronizing the spectral moves in a way that limits potential interference.

Exactly how much money will be needed for 800 MHz rebanding on the Mexican side of the border is still unclear, but Sprint and NII Holdings—the former Nextel International company that still operates under the Nextel brand and has roaming relationships with Sprint in Mexico—have “agreed to basically take responsibility for funding [rebanding in Mexico], within certain limitations,” according to David Furth, deputy chief of the FCC’s public-safety and homeland-security bureau.

Hopefully, 800 MHz rebanding work along the Mexican border can be executed without a lot of excess problems, so it can be completed during the next couple of years.

Meanwhile, with the end of rebanding in sight, the question that many in the industry are asking is: Was the massive process worth all of the effort?

My belief is that rebanding has been worthwhile, although the reasons are not the ones given for initiating the process. After all, there is evidence that interference with 800 MHz public-safety systems still exists after rebanding has been completed, so the main purpose of the program was not resolved completely (it should be noted that no one ever claimed that rebanding would remove all interference, only that it should lessen the problem).

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

Mark Withers (not verified)
on Jul 8, 2014

and Nextel "IDENT" is gone....

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 10, 2014

Yep, Sprint was held hostage by PS entities who delayed rebanding until Sprint caved in to their demands. The whole rebanding fiasco knocked Sprint on its ass for a decade.

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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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