As if it didn't have enough on its plate, public safety has begun to grapple with the necessity of relocating some licensees in the 700 MHz band to new frequencies to accommodate the proposed nationwide broadband network for first responders. (See cover story, page 82.)

When the FCC retooled the spectrum-allocation plan for public safety's 24 MHz swath in the 700 MHz band, it determined that the best framework for a public/private partnership to build the new network would be to establish a 10 MHz public safety broadband swath adjacent to the commercial D Block.

While public safety retained 12 MHz of spectrum for narrowband voice applications in the 700 MHz band, those channels were shifted. For the most part, this was little more than a paper decision. Because of incumbent TV channels and budgetary limitations, few public safety agencies were in a position to deploy networks on this spectrum.

However, for the few public safety licensees already operating in the band, the spectrum policy shift means they will have to relocate their channels to new frequencies to accommodate the proposed broadband network.

For public safety agencies, the good news is that 700 MHz reconfiguration should be a much easier process than 800 MHz rebanding. At 700 MHz, there are only 45 licensees affected, compared to 2800 licensees involved in the 800 MHz effort.

More importantly, all systems deployed at 700 MHz are relatively new, meaning much of the work can be done fairly smoothly and quickly via software upgrades — a stark contrast to 800 MHz networks, many of which were 20 years old, said Chuck Jackson, vice president of system operations for Motorola.

“The equipment [deployed at 700 MHz] is very, very new. There's no new software [to be developed] … so we can step through this fairly quickly,” Jackson said. “From a technical side, it will be much, much simpler.”

As with 800 MHz rebanding, the 700 MHz reconfiguration bill is supposed to be paid by a wireless operator — in this case, the winner of the D Block auction. However, while Sprint Nextel is obligated to pay all 800 MHz rebanding costs, the D Block winner is required only to pay $10 million toward 700 MHz reconfiguration.

“The cap is $10 million,” said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), which is supposed to administer the 700 MHz reconfiguration. “We're not sure that's going to be enough to pay the bill — we really don't know yet.”

Assuming the $10 million is enough to cover the reconfiguration, the money will not be available until the PSST and the D Block winner have reached a network-sharing agreement. Given the fact that the earliest a network-sharing agreement would be done is this fall and that the reconfiguration is supposed to be done on Feb. 17, 2009, the endeavor could prove to be challenging.

“Under the order, assuming there is a D Block winner, we're under very tight timelines,” McEwen said. “For instance, once we start on a network-sharing agreement, [moving 700 MHz incumbents] is one of the first tasks that has to be done. Within 30 days, we have to submit a plan as to how we're going to have to do that.”

With this in mind, the PSST board already has started meeting to determine how 700 MHz reconfiguration should proceed because “we could never do that in 30 days,” McEwen said.

Of course, those plans assume there is a D Block winner to pay for the reconfiguration process. If there is no D Block winner — or if a D Block winner does not reach a network-sharing agreement with the PSST — there would be no funding source, leaving the matter in limbo under current rules, McEwen said.

“Assuming there's a D Block winner, we're going to be ready,” he said. “If there isn't a D Block winner, I haven't a clue how we're going to meet any of those obligations.”