It may be months before 800 MHz licensees have definitive information regarding which tasks associated with rebanding will be approved for payment by Nextel Communications and the Transition Administrator. But there is no doubt that rebanding will happen, so officials for many licensees are busily preparing for all the work that will have to be done — regardless of who pays the bill.

During rebanding sessions last month at IWCE 2005 in Las Vegas, TA officials generally were noncommittal when asked questions about which items would meet the FCC's “reasonable and prudent” standard. However, members of the TA team were clear that licensees' first point of contact should be Nextel — and that licensees need to diligently do their rebanding homework before entering final negotiations with the wireless carrier.

Perhaps the first order of business for all licensees should be to ensure that all information in the FCC's Universal Licensing System (ULS) is updated — something that can be done online through the commission's Web site. The ULS database will be used to distribute rebanding information, so it's important that licensees update their contact information to ensure they receive timely communications from Nextel and the TA.

In addition, updating all other aspects of the license early can help rebanding proceed more smoothly, according to multiple sources interviewed during IWCE. If the only aspect of a license that needs to change during rebanding is the frequency, FCC officials have vowed that the commission will be able to approve the new license in an expedited fashion.

However, no such promises are being made if other changes to a license are needed. With this in mind, licensees that will be moved during rebanding are encouraged to make sure all ULS information about their networks is accurate, including the coordinates of all tower sites.

“Technically, [the new license] will ‘grease’ right through if nothing changes except for the frequency,” said Ron Haraseth, director of automated frequency coordination for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. “But, as soon as anything else shows up on that license that is a little bit different other than the frequency, then you've got a different scenario.”

Another key item for licensees is the designation of the person who will sign any contracts with Nextel and the TA — be it for the planning or implementation phase — and how to expedite that process as much as possible. While most of the licensees' pre-implementation focus and effort will be directed toward negotiating the best deal possible, history has shown that some of the biggest delays in the rebanding process can occur while looking for a signature, said MRT columnist Alan Tilles, an attorney at Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy & Ecker.

“When we [previously] rebanded Denver, it took about 30 minutes to reach an agreement, but it took us months to figure out who was supposed to sign it and get them to do so,” Tilles said.

Prior to negotiating a final contract with Nextel, a licensee must conduct an inventory of all equipment — radios, base stations, repeaters, combiners, radios of other interoperable users, etc. — in its system. This inventory will be the primary information used to determine the scope of work and the estimated costs that Nextel will pay.

With the inventory serving as the foundation of the negotiated rebanding deal, it's little wonder that everyone involved in the process has emphasized that licensees take all necessary measures to ensure that all equipment is accounted for accurately before formal contract negotiations begin with Nextel.

“You don't want to go through that process later. It's going to be much more difficult to get those costs recovered later than if you can get that done upfront,” Tilles said. “You shouldn't look at doing an inventory casually. … Make sure the work you do upfront is thorough and accurate.”

Indeed, with Nextel and TA officials working at a fever pitch in an effort to meet the aggressive 36-month schedule to get thousands of licensees rebanded, revisiting a licensee that's already been rebanded may not be a priority, said Cathy Seidel, deputy chief of the FCC's wireless telecommunications bureau.

“If, in the 28th month of that process, you discover that you have some stuff in the closet, I'm not so sure how easy that's going to be to address,” Seidel said. “Now is the time to get the inventory and find where things are.”

Another timing aspect will be a crucial component of the rebanding negotiation — determining the times when the rebanding work should be done. For some licensees, taking the communications system offline for a weekend or overnight may be feasible, but it may not be an option for licensees operating public-safety or critical-infrastructure networks that cannot afford any downtime, said Glen Nash, APCO's acting second vice president.

While these steps are definitely necessary, less clear is whether system performance should be measured before and after rebanding so an assessment can be made whether a licensee emerged from the process with “comparable facilities,” as the FCC order mandates.

Whether so-called “drive tests” to measure baseline signal strength, coverage and interference are necessary remains a point of debate (see news story, page 6). But most officials in the rebanding process acknowledge that any licensee that claims it did not receive comparable facilities after rebanding will need to make its case via the appeals process using empirical proof, not anecdotal evidence.

By most accounts, rebanding will be a Herculean effort, from both logistical and technical perspectives. Who should do all this work?

Time-honored debates on the virtues of in-house work versus outsourcing aside, the two paths offer some very tangible differences that licensees need to consider when making this important decision.

One potentially limiting factor can be the procurement process, particularly for a government entity owning a public-safety communications system. If local bidding laws create a lengthy delay, executing rebanding tasks internally may be the better option. A similar decision might be wise if an entity fears that political realities could result in the lowest bid being approved, even if the selected contractor is not competent to do the work.

If the procurement process is not a significant barrier and a licensee can identify contractors that it trusts to do work properly, there are significant advantages to outsourcing.

First, outsourcing minimizes the workload on internal personnel that already may be stretched with the day-to-day job of maintaining the existing radio network.

“I'm not sure we have the techs to get this done on a large-scale basis,” said Jeremy Denton, the Personal Communications Industry Association's director of industry affairs. “During my time in this industry, the one thing I don't see is radio people twiddling their thumbs because they don't have anything to do.”

Second, contracting with a third party for a fee pre-approved by Nextel and the TA team to accomplish a specific rebanding task likely will result in a smoother post-rebanding auditing process, officials for the FCC and the TA team said during IWCE.

If a licensee chooses to do rebanding work internally, it should be prepared to provide documentation when justifying costs to be paid by Nextel — a task that can be difficult when full-time employees with multiple responsibilities beyond rebanding are involved.

“The three most important things a licensee should do is keep records, keep records and keep records,” Nash said.

And that mantra is true, even if a licensee outsources rebanding projects. Although contractors may be touching the radio equipment or providing legal expertise, licensees still should diligently record support time for everything from planning meetings to driving to a base station to opening a locked door for a contractor, Nash said.

Of course, the key to successful outsourcing is contracting with an outside entity that is qualified to do the work. With more than a billion dollars earmarked for rebanding, the number of consultants offering myriad services has increased dramatically in recent months. Numerous officials involved in the process stressed at IWCE that licensees understand the nature of the work to be done and accurately assess the competence of consultants making proposals.

“For instance, we initially thought [conducting inventory] was a clerical effort,” Nash said. “What we're finding is that we actually need a technician to do the inventory, to get the technical information that we need.”

Despite all the questions being raised about rebanding by licensees, the biggest concern among many involved in rebanding isn't resolving the myriad questions being generated today but addressing problems created by ill-prepared licensees who have not done their homework.

“I'm not worried about the people that are here, but I'm worried about the fact that there are a lot of licensees who are not represented and really don't have a clue what is going on,” said one attendee during one IWCE rebanding session.

And, despite the fact that the 800 MHz order was the product of a highly politicized, hotly debated three-year proceeding, there are a remarkable number of affected licensees who are just learning about rebanding — something Ralf Borgardt of EFJohnson learned at a state symposium on rebanding in February.

“They asked who had not heard of 800 MHz rebanding, and five hands went up — and one of them was the guy who heads up all IT for correctional facilities in that state,” Borgardt said.

But even those closest to the process acknowledged that 800 MHz rebanding promises to unearth surprises for even the best-prepared licensees.

For instance, Tilles said a new public-safety client recently informed him that it uncovered a license it did not realize it owned while checking the ULS database. Chuck Jackson, a vice president and director of systems operations for Motorola, said his company's preliminary research revealed that three radio models it didn't believe were in the field today actually are being used to alert fire stations.

“We come in, we install a system, we get sign off and turn it over to a local shop or to the customer, and we don't see them for 15 years,” Jackson said. “Now, all of a sudden, we're going to do this major work to them. It's a little like remodeling a house; when you pull the wall board off, you're never quite sure what's going to be there.”

2005 Rebanding dates to remember

May 13: Economic area licensee relocation elections due to TA.
Late May: TA scheduled to release supplement of reconfiguration handbook.
June 27: Voluntary start date for Wave 1 licensees in Channels 1-120.
July 20: Planning window begins for Wave 2 licensees in Channels 1-120.
Oct. 3: Voluntary start date for Wave 2 licensees in Channels 1-120.
Oct. 20: Planning window begins for Wave 3 licensees in Channels 1-120.
Nov. 18: Planning window begins for Wave 1 NPSPAC licensees.
Source: Transition Administrator

Rebanding's ripple effect

Some 800 MHz licensees are not scheduled to be rebanded and, therefore, may be comfortable that the reconfiguration process will not impact them. For these licensees, Jill Lyon, United Telecom Council vice president and general counsel, has a firm message: Think again.

“Just because you're not a general-category licensee doesn't mean you will not be affected by rebanding,” Lyon said.

For instance, Lyon said an SMR licensee may remain at its current frequency and lose Nextel Communications — currently the primary source of interference in the band — on the adjacent channel, as many have wanted for years. But there's no guarantee that the new neighbor will be any better than Nextel; in fact, Lyon said there could be more interference in some scenarios.

“In the interleaved channels, we're talking about moving a digital provider [Nextel] from an adjacent channel and replacing it with an analog provider, in many cases,” Lyon said. “Now, which is more likely to cause interference — a low-powered digital signal or a high-powered analog signal? The analog signal is going to travel further.”

In this scenario, there is no pre-emptive measure the stationary SMR licensee can take to prevent the interference — Nextel and the Transition Administrator team only will negotiate with licensees that are being rebanded, not those that remain at their current frequency, Lyon said.

But the licensee that is staying put is not completely helpless, as the FCC 800 MHz order includes stricter interference-abatement guidelines in the band after the rebanding process is completed. However, a licensee must be able to demonstrate to the FCC that the interference exists. As a result, Lyon said stationary licensees may want to consider paying for drive tests that measure coverage and interference levels before and after the rebanding process.

However, Lyon believes such baseline measurements will have to be paid for by the stationary licensee, whereas rebanded licensees are expected to have their baseline tests paid for by Nextel.

“Because it really isn't part of rebanding, I don't think it will be paid for from the rebanding fund,” she said. “We're not even asking that it be paid for our members.”

The scenario also could mean that the rebanded licensee could experience some budgetary loss from the rebanding process-something FCC commissioners had hoped to avoid by negotiating with Nextel to pay all rebanding costs. To wit, the order calls for the entity causing interference to pay the funds necessary to alleviate the problem, even if the entity was just rebanded, Lyon said.

“The idea here is that everybody needs to be responsible for any interference they cause,” she said. “Fortunately, the high-site analog licensees have a history of working together to resolve these problems.”
— Donny Jackson

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