FCC commissioners this week approved an order and a public notice establishing new benchmarks that are expected to accelerate completion of the behind-schedule reconfiguration process in the 800 MHz spectrum band.

“We will not tolerate commercial users remaining in their existing section of the band too long, nor will we grant requests for extension from public-safety users that have not acted diligently and expeditiously to move this process along,” FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said during Tuesday night’s meeting.

The new rules specify Sprint Nextel’s obligations regarding the clearing of Channel 1-120 spectrum, where most NPSPAC licensees will operate when the rebanding project is completed. The FCC ruled that Sprint Nextel did not meet its 18-month benchmark—a time period that ended on Dec. 27, 2006—for clearing Channel 1-120 incumbent users from those frequencies, so new benchmarks were created.

Under the order, Sprint Nextel must complete the clearing of all Channel 1-120 incumbents that are not located near the Mexican or Canadian borders by Dec. 26, 2007. Sprint Nextel and SouthernLINC can continue operating on this spectrum, but they must vacate the frequencies within 90 days of a request by a public-safety licensee to use the airwaves the rest of the year. After Jan. 1, Sprint Nextel must vacate the Channel 1-120 spectrum within 60 days of such a public-safety request, although it can make waiver requests to the FCC.

In a press statement, Sprint Nextel said it disagreed with the FCC’s finding that it did not meet the original 18-month benchmark goals but declined further comment on the details. Meanwhile, the wireless carrier said “great progress is occurring” in rebanding, noting that 35 public-safety licensees have retuned their systems and another 200 have firm implementation dates or will have them soon.

Meanwhile, the FCC’s public notice established new guidelines and procedures for public-safety licensees, as well. NPSPAC licensees will have 90 to 110 days—depending on the number of radio units operating in the system—to complete planning after a planning-funding agreement is reached with Sprint Nextel. During this time, licensees must submit biweekly reports on the planning progress to the Transition Administrator, the cost of which will be paid by Sprint Nextel.

After planning is completed and a cost estimate is submitted, the licensee will have 30 days to negotiate a rebanding deal without a mediator before entering a 20-day mediation period. If any items remain in dispute after the mediation period, the case will be submitted to the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB) for resolution.

NPSPAC licensees can ask the FCC for additional time, but the licensee must demonstrate that it has used its time wisely. Extension requests citing a delay caused by Sprint Nextel, vendors or consultants “will not be routinely granted,” according to the public notice.

Given the fact that it has taken public-safety agencies with large radio systems more than a year to complete their rebanding planning, Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) President Willis Carter expressed hope that the FCC will ensure that public-safety entities have adequate time.

“We are pleased that the FCC is taking steps to expedite the process, however, we urge the FCC to provide appropriate relief for public safety agencies that simply can’t complete the planning process in time despite their best efforts or factors beyond their control,” Carter said in a statement.

In addition, the FCC’s order ruled that some NPSPAC licensees in Georgia and Pennsylvania can wait to complete their rebanding work until March 2009. These licensees are hampered by the fact that TV stations are broadcasting on Channel 69 in their areas, so rebanding before the Feb. 17, 2009, transition date could expose the public-safety communications systems to unwanted interference. These licensees are expected to execute all but the final steps of rebanding in a timely manner, according to the order.