Public-safety organizations, critical-infrastructure entities and wireless carriers using 800 MHz spectrum soon may be preparing to shift to different frequencies, as the Federal Communications Commission is expected to address the well-chronicled interference problems in the band this month or next.

Two primary proposals have been submitted to the FCC to resolve the interference issues, most of which involve conflicts with expanding wireless carrier Nextel Communications. One calls for rebanding the spectrum, while the other proposes technical solutions to mitigate the problem.

Known as the Consensus Plan, the rebanding strategy is supported by most public-safety organizations and Nextel, which submitted a white paper two years ago that outlined the plan. It calls for Nextel to move from its interleaved 800 MHz spectrum to a continuous block within the band, and to exchange 700 MHz and 900 MHz frequencies for a block of 1.9 GHz spectrum. Nextel also has pledged to pay $850 million to absorb the costs of relocating and re-tuning other 800 MHz users to a contiguous block elsewhere in the band.

Opponents of this plan argue that the three-and-a-half years needed to implement such a spectrum shuffle means the interference problems would not be addressed quickly enough. They're also concerned Nextel would receive a spectrum windfall if the rebanding plan were to be adopted as proposed. Instead, wireless carriers competing with Nextel and other 800 MHz users that would be forced to move under the rebanding plan are supporting a plan that calls for the creation of engineering best practices that would be used within the 800 MHz band to mitigate interference.

Motorola, Nextel's primary vendor and one of the largest manufacturers of equipment for other 800 MHz users, submitted comments to the FCC in May 2003 indicating it had developed receivers that could address interference problems without rebanding.

Such technical solutions could be implemented immediately without inconveniencing public-safety groups or critical-infrastructure entities such as power companies, according to Jill Lyon, vice president and general counsel for the United Telecom Council, an association of utility companies. She called rebanding a “pie in the sky” proposal that is fraught with logistical problems, not the least of which involves assurances that funding will be available to pay for the proposed changes. There are indications that the costs of rebanding could exceed Nextel's $850 million estimate by a significant margin, she said.

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the rebanding proposal is a stipulation that would limit technological development for 800 MHz users other than Nextel, Lyon said. Users of the spectrum block below the 861 MHz demarcation point would have to use high-tower, high-power technologies, while Nextel would be able to use shorter towers and lower-power systems that are characteristic of advanced communications, she said.

“What that does is make Nextel the only player in the band with new technology,” Lyon said.

But Nextel believes the technical solutions proposed by opponents represent no more than a temporary patch, not a complete resolution. The carrier recently used myriad engineering techniques in an attempt to address its interference problems with the City of Denver, but the parties ultimately decided that a channel swap was necessary.

“[The technical-solution proposal] really just delays the inevitable and is inherently reactive,”said Chris Doherty, Nextel's senior director of public affairs. “We think those are good strategies to use after rebanding.”

It's doubtful the FCC will adopt the portion of the rebanding plan that most concerns Lyons, because the commission wants to permit flexible uses for spectrum, said Rudy Baca, analyst for The Precursor Group.

Although there is a good chance Nextel will not get the 1.9 GHz spectrum it desires, the FCC likely will opt to clean the 800 MHz band by rebanding rather than using technical solutions to mitigate the problems, he said. “We're out of time for patches.”

800 MHZ SAGA: BAND ON THE RUN

  • November 2001: Nextel proposes plan to vacate its interleaved spectrum in the 800 MHz band and exchange other spectrum in return for unencumbered spectrum at 800 MHz and 1.9 GHz.

  • March 2002: The FCC releases a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to solicit comments from all parties.

  • August 2002: The major points of the Nextel proposal are presented to the FCC as the “Consensus Plan,” with the blessing of most public-safety organizations.

  • Early May 2003: Motorola says interference problems at 800 MHz can be resolved if users will deploy better receivers in their systems.

  • Late May 2003: Dubbed the “Balanced Approach” plan, an alternative to the Consensus Plan is proposed to the FCC that calls for technical solutions instead of rebanding to resolve interference.

  • January/February 2004: Sources predict the FCC will release its preliminary order to address interference issues in the 800 MHz band.