Sprint Nextel is not obligated to demand that 800 MHz licensees agree to reband their networks at the absolute lowest cost, but has some flexibility to accept higher costs to move the process forward, according to an FCC order released last Friday.

In a letter to the commission last month, Sprint Nextel said it has assumed that a sentence in the FCC’s 2004 rebanding order calling for “minimum necessary cost” meant “absolute lowest cost.” In trying to meet this standard, the wireless carrier claims it has been forced “to challenge virtually every dollar spent on band reconfiguration,” which has led to lengthy and expensive negotiation proceedings with licensees.

All five FCC commissioners voted to grant the cost flexibility requested by Sprint Nextel, a position that public-safety leadership also supported in an FCC filing earlier this month.

“The minimization of costs is emphatically not the sole or even the primary purpose of the rebanding process,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and other commissioners said in a joint statement. “More important is that rebanding proceed as quickly and effectively as possible.

“After all, expeditiously eliminating interference between commercial and public safety users is the goal that motivates all of us. And we sincerely hope that all parties will keep their eyes on that prize even as they work through the details of this complex process.”

In the order, the FCC noted that Sprint Nextel said the commission’s “reasonable and prudent” standard is more important than keeping rebanding costs at an absolute minimum. This is particularly true in cases where paying lawyers and mediators to conduct extended negotiations actually results in more money being spent on rebanding.

“In many cases, the resulting cost of prolonged negotiation and mediation appears to be higher than the savings that resolution of the disputed issues would generate,” the FCC ruling states. “In addition, prolonged negotiation and mediation of cost issues in multiple cases has impeded timely completion of the rebanding process.”

The FCC’s action represented one of its quickest rulings regarding the rebanding process, coming one month after Sprint Nextel filed its request. Many rebanding issues have been pending for several months, and some have not been addressed after more than a year.

Sprint Nextel welcomed a quick decision on this cost matter.

“While we are still reviewing the FCC’s order, Sprint is pleased that the commission has responded to our request for additional flexibility in negotiating the costs related to the 800 MHz reconfiguration,” the carrier said in a statement. “We are optimistic this will help advance the initiative and look forward to continuing to work with all parties to complete the reconfiguration.”