Armed with additional authority from the FCC, the 800 MHz Transition Administrator in February took several measures to clear bottlenecks in the processes associated with planning-funding requests and final rebanding agreements.

Perhaps the most significant change for public-safety entities was the TA's new policy regarding requests for planning funding. Instead of sending planning-funding requests to Sprint Nextel, licensees must send these requests to the TA, which will determine whether the requests provides sufficient detail, TA Director Brett Haan said.

Many public-safety licensees had complained that Sprint Nextel sought too much detail in planning-funding requests, resulting in delays of several months and very few planning-funding agreements being reached. Although news of the planning-funding deal with the Utah Communications Agency Network (UCAN) was welcomed (see cover story on page 48), the fact that it was approved almost eight months after being submitted was a source of concern.

Such delays should not occur in the future. Under the new planning-funding guidelines, a licensee and Sprint Nextel will be given 60 days to reach an agreement after the TA determines that the request includes a sufficient level of detail. If no planning-funding deal is reached in that time, the TA will recommend — or mandate, if the licensee is in the mandatory negotiation period — mediation to resolve the dispute.

“I think giving the time parameters is good … it gives [licensees] certainty and gives them a path to look down the road,” said Haan, who also noted that the initial review will give the TA “100% visibility” into the planning-funding process.

In addition to these procedural steps, the TA also mandated that licensees use the TA template when submitting all planning-funding requests, Haan said. In the first three weeks after the new planning-funding procedure was announced, 16 new planning-funding applications were submitted — about one-third as many as had been submitted during the previous year.

Haan unveiled the new planning-funding policy at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) winter summit in Orlando. He made the presentation on the same day that the FCC released a letter stating that the TA “has broad discretion” to adjust scheduled milestones and deadlines, as long as the rebanding process is completed in the commission's 36-month timeframe (see sidebar).

Public-safety officials welcomed the new guidelines.

“I think it's good to have the TA play a more active role earlier in the process to move these requests along,” said Robert Gurss, APCO's director of legal and government affairs. “[Rebanding] was designed so public-safety entities would not have to spend any of their own resources to prepare for or do the rebanding. That's not working out as well as it should be.”

UCAN Executive Director Steve Proctor said his organization was able to fund its rebanding planning efforts until Sprint Nextel provided planning-funding money. But other cash-strapped licensees do not have that luxury, and many may not be able to plan without receiving planning funding from Sprint Nextel, he said.

“We just decided to make a commitment to move forward, and luckily, it worked for us,” Proctor said. “But that's certainly an issue that needs clarification because some agencies can't afford to do all the work necessary to do this without having some money in the bank.”

One hope is that planning-funding agreements will help facilitate greater dialog between Sprint Nextel and licensees, so negotiated rebanding agreements can be reached instead of having cases enter mandatory mediation under the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process.

An alarming number of cases in Wave 1, Stage 1, entered the ADR process after Sprint Nextel and the licensees failed to reach agreement as of Dec. 27, 2005 (see chart). Given that these systems operating in Channels 1-120 typically are simpler than public-safety systems in Wave 1, Stage 2, the fact that 47% of these cases required mediation was not encouraging.

“It's a bad sign,” Gurss said. “If they had that much trouble reaching agreement with those, I'm concerned about public-safety folks who have more complicated systems and more complicated moves, in many cases.”

Haan acknowledged that the number of ADR cases in Wave 1, Stage 1, were “more than anybody wished,” but he was pleased that mediation resulted in only a few cases being submitted to the FCC. The underlying problem in most ADR cases was that Sprint Nextel and the licensee failed to start negotiations soon enough or did not maintain communications on a regular basis, he said.

But there are not any easily identifiable content issues that are common among the disputes, said Sandy Edwards, Sprint Nextel's vice president of spectrum resources.

“There's something different on every one,” Edwards said. “Of all the cases that went to mediation, I haven't seen any one trend — if there was, we could certainly go resolve it.”

Edwards and Haan both said they believe rebanding can be completed in the summer of 2008, as the FCC mandated. But Proctor expressed doubts that such a timetable is realistic.

“I think we're all overly optimistic to think this can be done in 36 months,” he said. “When you look at this from a nationwide perspective, we're all going to be using the same resources, the same consultants, the same technical personnel, the same vendors and expecting those communities to all gear up and focus on just rebanding, as opposed to the normal market activities that they have to do. It is optimistic, at best.”

Wave 1, Stage 1:

Status after Alternative Dispute Resolution completed*

369 rebanding agreements sought
217 agreements reached without ADR
172 cases entered ADR process
152 agreements reached during ADR
14 cases granted additional mediation time
6 cases referred to the FCC

* Statistics as of Feb. 21, 2006

Source: 800 MHz Transition Administrator