The FCC last week approved an order that requires Sprint Nextel to vacate most of its 800 MHz interleaved channels in stages—based on the progress of rebanding in a given geographic region—allowing public-safety entities to apply for the much-anticipated spectrum.

Under the order, Sprint Nextel is required to make the 809-809.5/854-854.5 MHz spectrum available in all non-border areas of the U.S. within 60 days of a public-safety agency requesting the spectrum after receiving a license for it. Additional spectrum will be made available as various rebanding thresholds are met.

For instance, 1 MHz of paired spectrum will be made available when 25% of NPSPAC licensees in a region have moved their primary operations to new channels. Other frequencies will be made available when 50%, 75%, 90% and 100% of the channels in a geographic region are rebanded. On March 31, 2010, Sprint Nextel is required to vacate all of its interleaved spectrum in non-border areas.

Public-safety representatives have said that there is a pent-up demand among first-responder agencies to use the interleaved spectrum, but the FCC has not established a process for public-safety agencies to apply for licenses to the frequencies. FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said the agency hopes to release these rules “within the month of November.”

Sprint Nextel released a statement commending the FCC on the order.

“This phased transition will ensure that this spectrum is turned over to public safety in a timely manner while enabling Sprint to support the 800 MHz reconfiguration and continue to provide best-ever service levels to our iDEN customers,” the statement said.

Release of the order is expected to bring closure to a year-long dispute between the carrier and the FCC regarding the clearance of the interleaved channels. A year ago, the agency passed an order requiring Sprint Nextel to vacate all interleaved channels in June of this year, the target date for the completion of rebanding. Sprint Nextel challenged the ruling, but an appeals court upheld the FCC decision.

Sprint Nextel officials claimed that vacating the interleaved channels before public-safety licensees cleared their spectrum—the frequencies that Sprint Nextel ultimately will occupy when rebanding is complete—would “cripple” its iDEN network.

Sprint Nextel had proposed that it would be willing to vacate interleaved spectrum in stages, based on the amount of rebanding progress that has been made in a geographical region. Public-safety organizations expressed support for the model but also wanted a hard deadline that would allow them to plan for using the frequencies. Kenny described the FCC proposal—and the deadline of March 31, 2010—as a “compromise” between the two positions.

SPRINT NEXTEL'S STAGES

Stage Spectrum to clear NPSPAC rebanding completed
1 809-809.5/854-854.5 MHz None
2 809.5-810.5/854.5-855.5 MHz 25%
3 810.5-812/855.5-857 MHz 50%
4 812-814/857-859 MHz 75%
5 814-815/859-860 MHz 90%
6 816-817/861-862 MHz 100%

*All spectrum must be available to public safety by March 31, 2010
Source: FCC