LAS VEGAS — Progress is a funny thing. Sometimes it’s easily discernible, and you immediately feel good about what you see. Other times, however, it’s more difficult to see, and you often need a healthy dose of perspective in order to see it. This phenomenon clearly was on display yesterday during IWCE 2011.

Chris Essid, the director of the Office of Emergency Communications, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, updated attendees on the progress that his office has made in a relatively short amount of time (the OEC only has been in existence for four years). For instance, roughly 3,500 public-safety communications officials have been trained as communications leaders, tasked with the responsibility of setting up communications in the aftermath of natural or manmade emergencies that require a multijurisdictional response. The idea is that COMLs, as they are known, will follow the same blueprint in New York state that they do in California.

“That’s significant progress,” Essid said, adding that he expects the number of COMLs will double, or even triple, in the near future.

However, there’s much work still to do. Essid spoke of an “imaginary finish line” concerning the work that is being done by the OEC. “It doesn’t exist,” he said.

Indeed, the OEC’s National Communications Plan currently is being updated because technology has evolved so much in just the last four years, particularly with the advent of next-generation technologies, which are proliferating like rabbits. “Technology is useless if people aren’t trained on how to use it,” Essid said.
Also, it is important that the use of technology is as well coordinated as the people who use the myriad communications systems. “We can’t have one plan for satellite communications and another for LMR,” Essid said.

To some, it might seem that a finish line also doesn’t exist regarding the effort to reconfigure the 800 MHz spectrum in order to eliminate interference that in some places has an adverse effect on first responder communications. Roberto Mussenden, a Federal Communications Commission attorney, updated attendees yesterday on where things stand. Stage 1 rebanding has been completed, he said. Meanwhile, 90% of Stage 2 licensees have frequency reconfiguration agreements with Sprint Nextel, and roughly 60% have completed rebanding. Also, rebanding has been completed in six NPSPAC regions.

Stage 1 went fairly smoothly because it consisted primarily of non-public-safety entities. But Stage 2 has slogged along because it consists mostly of public-safety licenses, and such systems can’t be taken off the air to do the reconfiguration work. In addition, large systems, particularly statewide systems, have taken much longer than expected simply due to their size. As if that wasn’t enough, public-safety communications systems apparently are more interconnected than anyone realized — who says there’s no interoperability? — which greatly has added to the challenge and lengthened the rebanding timeframe. “The FCC won’t relax its efforts to keep the ball moving,” Mussenden said.

A few significant challenges still remain, most notably the lack of a rebanding agreement with Mexico. Mussenden said that forging a rebanding agreement with Canada was fairly easy because the U.S. and Canadian band plans were quite similar. Not so regarding Mexico, which has complicated negotiations significantly, he said.

So, here we are, nearly three years past the original FCC deadline to complete rebanding, and there is no end in sight. That undoubtedly is frustrating many people, and it is easy to understand why. However, a dose of perspective is needed when looking back upon the rebanding effort. First, as Mussenden pointed out, not a single first responder has been killed due to radio interference during the nearly six years since the reconfiguration project began. Considering that it was profound and well-placed fear of such an event that provided the impetus to undertake the massive project, this is a huge success.

Second, it should be remembered that not only is rebanding a massive, complex project with a plethora of moving parts, it also is unprecedented. There was no play book or game plan for doing this. I asked Mussenden yesterday what it has been like to execute the reconfiguration without a blueprint. “It’s been like painting a moving bus,” he said

It also has seemed analogous to herding cats. If you try either of these tasks, you will see just how challenging 800 MHz rebanding has been — and a better understanding of why it is taking so long to finish.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.