BALTIMORE--Yesterday, Derek Poarch, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, told attendees of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference being held here that the commission intends to stick to its timetable for completing the reconfiguration of 800 MHz airwaves. He also said that public-safety licensees shouldn’t count on receiving extensions, even though the reconfiguration process is well behind schedule. Today, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin backed him up.

Poarch stated that each licensee would get “the time it reasonably needs to complete rebanding,” but only if it met certain performance metrics, and only if the work “is ongoing.” While it could be construed that Poarch was cracking the whip solely on public safety, Martin—who spoke briefly this morning at the conference—told reporters afterwards he didn’t believe that was the case.

“Our message to public safety, and to the commercial entities as well, is going to be the same: we’re going to put everybody’s feet to the fire to get this done as quickly as possible,” Martin said. “I didn’t hear Chief Poarch’s comments, but if he sent that message to everybody that we’re going to put their feet to the fire, that we’re going to move this along as quickly as is possible, under any circumstances, I think that is exactly the right message to be telling everybody.”

That includes the FCC, Martin said. “The commission had gotten a host of requests for clarification on some of the issues, and I think we’ve done a good job of trying to move those through,” he said. “[But] the commission has to make sure it’s responding to any outstanding issues that people bring to them as well.”

There’s little doubt the whip needs to be cracked—it just should have happened earlier. It was apparent early on that the negotiations between Sprint Nextel and licensees were taking too long, largely because of Sprint Nextel’s interpretation of the cost-containment provisions of the FCC’s order; the carrier has said it believed the order’s “minimum necessary cost” provision meant “absolute lowest cost,” which compelled Sprint Nextel to fight for every last dollar. That led to protracted negotiations between the carrier and public-safety licensees, with both parties, reportedly in many cases, spending considerably more money than the cost of the item in question, a ridiculous outcome. The FCC in May granted Sprint Nextel the flexibility it sought concerning cost negotiations, but why did it take so long?

I have written before that while there is plenty of blame to go around concerning why the reconfiguration process is so far behind schedule, it is important to keep the finger pointing within context. No manual exists for reconfiguring an entire band of spectrum, and relocating a few thousand licensees to new frequencies, which has forced the participants—the FCC, the Transition Administrator, Sprint Nextel, public safety and its various advisers—to figure things out as they go along. That’s no easy task.

It also should be noted, in the interest of fairness, that the adjustments implemented this year—which also included the TA’s subscriber equipment deployment initiative, which lets licensees retune mobile and portable radios prior to the completion of all negotiations with Sprint Nextel, should have a positive effect on the reconfiguration process moving forward.

Nevertheless, the FCC should have recognized earlier than it did that the rebanding effort was in serious trouble and should have taken decisive action well before now. I don’t know about you, but if I see smoke in my home, I’m not waiting until I see the flames before fleeing. The signals were there, and the commission either didn’t see them, or chose to ignore them in the hope they’d go away on their own.

Consequently, cracking the whip now—while arguably necessary at this point—strikes me as an action that not only is “too little, too late,” but also a bit unfair.

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