The FCC issued a report and order on Friday eliminating requirements associated with the planned deadline to transition 700 MHz public-safety narrowband systems from 12.5 kHz to 6.25 kHz channels by Dec. 31, 2016, as well as designating some channels in the band for voice communications with helicopters and other aircraft.

Removing the 700 MHz narrowbanding requirement “will enable licensees to extend the life of existing systems and will provide public safety with greater flexibility in determining the optimal future use of the band,” according to the text of the FCC’s report and order.

“We conclude that the December 31, 2016 narrowbanding implementation deadline is no longer viable,” the FCC report and order states. “The record indicates that requiring narrowbanding by December 2016 would force many licensees to modify or replace existing systems well before the end of their useful life. In addition, we share the concerns expressed by many commenting parties about the maturity of 6.25 kilohertz-capable equipment, including the lack of developed open standards governing major system components.”

Public-safety officials have been asking for relief from the 700 MHz narrowbanding deadline for several years, noting that many 700 MHz public-safety LMR systems would be less than eight years old when the Dec. 31, 2016, date arrived, because the spectrum was not available nationwide until 2009. Although the FCC had given indications that it would not move forward with the deadline—some waivers were granted that extended the time until 2024—the narrowbanding mandate remained in place until Friday.

In addition, many have noted that there is a possibility that mission-critical voice could be offered over broadband networks like the one being developed by FirstNet, so requiring public-safety entities operating narrowband systems at 700 MHz to revamp them by the previously planned Dec. 31, 2016, date could limit their flexibility in the future.

With the FCC’s decision to eliminate the 700 MHz narrowbanding rules, public-safety agencies can make buildout plans based on capacity needs, instead of having to deploy a 6.25 kHz-channel technology like P25 Phase II simply to comply with regulations, according to Steve Devine, assistant director for the Missouri Statewide Wireless Interoperability Network (MOSWIN).

“It certainly makes it easier [to budget],” Devine said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “There were several places with wide-area systems—countywide, regional and even statewide—that were planning to be Phase II [P25] because of the rule. I would like to think those folks would go back and realize that, now that the rule has changed, they may revisit some places where they don’t need that spectral efficiency.

“That’s saving some real money. In a wide-area system, that can be big dollars. It can be millions of dollars in a statewide system between Phase II and not.”

But the absence of a 700 MHz narrowbanding mandate does not mean that the market for 6.25 kHz equipment in the band will vanish, because it may be the best technology choice—particularly in urban locations with a scarcity of available spectrum, Devine said.

“Those that feel they need to arrive at that efficiency can, but it’s not forced upon them now,” he said. “A lot of this will be subject to the RPCs [regional planning committees]. When there’s channel contention, whoever uses the channels most efficiently probably should get priority—I think that’s a basic tenet in all of the RPC review processes.”

In fact, the FCC order explicitly encourages the use of 6.25 kHz-channel technology for 700 MHz systems in geographic areas where public-safety entities currently utilize systems in the 470-512 MHz known as the T-Band. In 2012, Congress mandated that public-safety agencies with T-Band systems vacate the T-Band spectrum by 2021, and affected entities have been scrambling to find spectrum that will provide a migration path out of the T-Band.