Licensees of 800 MHz frequencies hoping that the official June 27 kickoff of the much-anticipated rebanding effort would bring clarity to several sticky payment issues were disappointed, but the Transition Administrator team did provide additional guidance regarding several procedural matters.

“There's a lot more certainty than there was before. We're starting to peel the layers of the onion away,” said Robert Gurss, director of legal and government affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). “The TA certainly has better explained the process of what's going to happen.”

Most recent communication from the TA — available online to licensees at www.800ta.org — has focused on matters related to licensees' new frequencies. Most licensees have been given new frequency assignments to review, and the TA has reiterated deadlines for licensees electing to remain in the expansion band or wanting to relocate into the guard band.

For public-safety entities that can remain in the expansion band, there are decided advantages, said Ron Haraseth, APCO's director of automated frequency coordination.

“Staying in the expansion band means they avoid the disruption of rebanding,” Haraseth said. “Plus, if they don't move, there will be more vacant channels for public safety for the next three years.”

One early rebanding problem concerns the fact that the TA team hasn't been able to connect with many licensees. Although the TA asked licensees to submit a point-of-contact form and update their information in the FCC's Universal Licensing System (ULS) database, several sources said the return rate on the forms was disappointing, and many ULS addresses are no longer accurate.

Bryan Cloar, a member of the TA's community outreach team, said about 50% of the point-of-contact forms from owners of the 1036 Wave 1 licenses had been returned, with a large percentage of them arriving only after the TA proactively searched and called the licensees.

“We have a contact center to receive calls and answer questions,” Cloar said. “When they are not doing that, we are using our resources to make outbound calls.”

Of course, it still is very early in the process — June 27 marked the beginning of the voluntary negotiation period. So far, plans generally have been realized, said Robert Kelly, a TA attorney with Squires, Sanders & Dempsey.

“I think things are proceeding about as we were expecting them to proceed,” Kelly said.

But others involved in rebanding are less optimistic, noting that few of the money-related issues discussed with TA officials during IWCE 2005 in early April — many of which also were raised at the APCO Winter Summit in February — have been addressed more than three months later.

A fundamental premise behind the FCC's order is that 800 MHz licensees would not be required to spend any funds related to rebanding. While all government and TA officials continue to repeat this mantra, few specifics regarding what expenses Nextel will pay have been provided.

Kelly noted that the TA has determined that Nextel will pay for licensees to contract with engineering consultants to ensure that the licensees receive spectrum that is comparable to what they had prior to rebanding. But questions remain about reimbursement for expenses related to issues such as internal planning, education, overtime and baseline testing — from both coverage and interference perspectives — for licensees.

On the vendor side, objections have been raised regarding a TA edict that vendors absorb the costs they incur while bidding to do rebanding contract work, said Chuck Jackson, Motorola vice president and director of systems operations. Preparing a quote to reband a large public-safety system could take weeks, and Motorola believes it should be able to recoup those expenses, he said.

Meanwhile, Motorola has dedicated 45 employees to rebanding issues, including some “very, very senior people” who are among the few in the world familiar with the software code used in some of the company's legacy systems, Jackson said. Motorola also is in discussions with The Genesis Group to provide network-management software (see sidebar). In addition, the vendor giant also has opened 13 new labs to test rebanding-related solutions for these older networks, he said.

“[One] thing we're scared to death about is that, if you make any mistakes in this, it could be tough — by the time you find it, you may have already touched a couple hundred thousand radios,” Jackson said.

One new wrinkle in the rebanding process is a rumored proposal that the TA be allowed to audit expenditures as much as 18 months after rebanding — a notion that one rebanding participant characterized as “absurd.” Kelly acknowledged that audit questions are “under consideration” by the TA but declined to elaborate further.

Having so many critical issues undecided makes it more difficult for licensees to reach agreements with Nextel and the TA quickly, said Andy Maxymillian, managing consultant for SSI Services. While such clarifications are needed long term, Maxymillian said he understands the TA's short-term need for flexibility in negotiations.

“I suspect that licensees in Wave 3 and Wave 4 will have an easier time because a lot of this will have been decided by then,” Maxymillian said. “I think the lack of specificity today translates to wiggle room for the TA.”

Indeed, several TA officials have expressed concern that blanket policies stating that Nextel will pay for certain items would preclude refusing to pay for them in cases where they are deemed to be unnecessary. However, most involved in the rebanding process said that negotiating such items on a case-by-case basis could lead to unwanted inconsistencies and could jeopardize efforts to complete rebanding in the scheduled 36-month period.

For this reason, Gurss remains hopeful that policies on these much-debated topics will be established and distributed throughout the 800 MHz community.

“The TA has indicated informally that it will provide some documentation about these issues as they are determined, … so we don't have people in Wave 3 arguing over the same things people were arguing about in Wave 1,” Gurss said.

Jackson agreed that wide distribution of such information is crucial for rebanding to be completed successfully.

“I think everybody's waiting for these more-definitive guidelines, then they'll start to crank up,” Jackson said. “Hopefully, those will come soon because the gun has gone off.”

Matters of frequency

Key dates for 800 MHz licensees to submit information to the Transition Administrator

Sept. 27: Application deadline for Wave 1 licensees wanting to relocate into the expansion band.

Oct. 3: Application deadline for Wave 2 licensees wanting to relocate into the guard band.

Jan. 3, 2006: Application deadline for Wave 3 licensees wanting to relocate into the guard band. Also, application deadline for Wave 2 licensees wanting to relocate into the expansion band.

April 3, 2006: Application deadline for Wave 4 licensees wanting to relocate into the guard band. Also, application deadline for Wave 3 licensees wanting to relocate into the expansion band.

July 3, 2006: Application deadline for Wave 4 licensees wanting to relocate into the expansion band.

Source: Transition Administrator

Genesis, Motorola near deal

While most of the rebanding focus has been on hardware changes, The Genesis Group and Motorola are working on an agreement for Genesis to supply updated software solutions to replace some of Motorola's legacy network-management tools.

The Genesis Group President and CEO Phil Burks said the proposed agreement calls for his company's GenWatch3 network-management software to replace Motorola's Unix-based SIMSII and SIP — which uses an older Windows operating system — solutions, neither of which will be upgraded by the vendor giant to work after rebanding.

“We have been enhancing Motorola SmartNet systems for 15 years with creative software tools, and this takes it to the next level,” Burks said. “Our mission is to take our commercially available GenWatch3 and add any missing features to return SIMSII and SIP functionality from within a modern Windows interface.”

Indeed, Genesis long has been licensed to decode control channel outbound signal word messages, but the new agreement will let the Texas-based company encode control channel inbound signal word messages and provide computer-aided dispatch interface, Burks said. He added that Genesis is in the process of coding and testing its software with a SmartZone system customer.

Although using a different operating system means users will have to become accustomed to a different onscreen look, GenWatch3 is a functional replacement for the legacy systems — including features such as selective inhibit and dynamic regrouping — while addressing known bugs, Burks said. Other features are available, although such upgrades may not be paid for as part of rebanding, he said.

“Rebanding customers will be able to optionally add enhancements that they may not have had with their SIMSII and SIP software,” Burks said. “This may need to be done outside of the ‘Nextel-paid’ scope, but with the GenWatch3 modularity, this is simple to do.”

In addition to SIMSII and SIP, GenWatch 3 can be used as an alternative to Motorola's Site Lens and DOS-based SystemWatch network-management solutions, Burks said. Genesis also believes its GenWatch3 platform can be used in other ways, including quick-response alarm applications that can be used during incidents involving fire, hostages or robberies.

Burks said he believes the network-management agreement will be finalized by November, so Genesis can ship product to customers beginning in December. Motorola officials declined to comment on the matter.
— Donny Jackson