Ignoring calls by many to extend the timeline for 800 MHz rebanding, the FCC last month instead approved rules that established new benchmarks and procedures which effectively will allow the massive project to continue beyond next summer's deadline — actions that likely will generate a flurry of waiver applications in the future.

At its Sept. 11 meeting, FCC commissioners unanimously approved an order outlining new obligations for Sprint Nextel because the wireless carrier failed to meet the 18-month benchmarks included in the commission's original rebanding order of 2004.

Under the new 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. Sprint Nextel and SouthernLINC can continue operating on this spectrum until the end of the year, but they must vacate the frequencies within 90 days of a request by a public-safety licensee to use the airwaves. After Jan. 1, 2008, 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.

“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 the commission meeting.

Complementing the order was an FCC public notice that outlined new guidelines and procedures designed to spur progress in rebanding, which many participants believe will not be finished for at least two years after the project's scheduled completion date of June 27, 2008.

National Public Safety Planning Advisory Committee (NPSPAC) licensees will have 90 to 110 days, depending on the number of radio units operating in their systems, 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 (TA), 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 with Sprint Nextel 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.

Officially, the FCC did not extend next summer's project deadline, but most participants believe the FCC typically will grant waivers to public-safety licensees requesting additional time, as long as they can demonstrate a need for extension and that they have used their time wisely to date.

“The commission is expecting there will have to be a significant number of agencies seeking waivers to those planning dates,” said Robert Gurss, director of legal and government affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

Contrarily, the public notice states that extension requests citing a delay caused by Sprint Nextel, vendors or consultants “will not be routinely granted.” Gurss said he questions whether the FCC will be in a position to refuse such requests, particularly with vendors scrambling to meet multiple customers' rebanding needs simultaneously.

“There won't be any choice,” Gurss said. “If the vendors can't get it done, what are [FCC officials] going to do?”

While Gurss expressed concern that vendors would not be able to meet the new timetables, at least one vendor representative — Chuck Jackson, vice president and director of system operations for Motorola — said he believes his company can execute as quickly as the FCC wants in most cases.

“I clearly believe the whole procedural approval cycle is going to be the biggest challenge. That's where we see most of the time being eaten up,” Jackson said.

Officials for the TA and Sprint Nextel declined to be interviewed for this story, but Sprint Nextel issued a statement that it disagreed with the FCC's assessment that the wireless carrier failed to meet the agency's Dec. 27, 2006, benchmarks. In addition, Sprint Nextel stated that “great progress” is being made in rebanding, noting that more than 35 public-safety retunes have been completed and 200 more have firm implementation dates or will have them soon.

Indeed, many rebanding participants believe the process has more momentum now than ever before, fueled largely by the TA's regional implementation planning meetings that Motorola's Jackson described as “excellent.” These regional meetings are not only a place to coordinate implementation schedules and identify potential barriers, but they have helped provide much-needed focus to the process, he said.

Meanwhile, the FCC continues to make rulings in key areas, such as last month's decision 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.

This ruling and a previous decision regarding which radios must be replaced at Sprint Nextel's cost have been significant, because the issues affected more than 100 other deals, Jackson said.

“Over the course of this year, [the FCC is] taking a much more active role in moving this along, particularly in knocking down obstacles … that were really clogging up deals in the field,” he said. “I think they've done a good job of getting the universal issues out of the way … so they're not a point of contention anymore.”

One key issue outside the FCC's control is the need for international treaties with Canada and Mexico to ensure coordination with those countries in the border area after rebanding is completed. Government officials repeatedly have expressed optimism that some sort of agreement with Canada could be announced soon, but a deal with Mexico appears to be further away.

Without new treaties, many of the Wave 4 licensees cannot begin the rebanding process, which is just one reason why the reconfiguration project will not be finished next summer — and a reason often cited by industry observers who believed the FCC should have granted a blanket extension. However, FCC officials at the APCO conference in August repeatedly stated that no across-the-board extension would be granted.

Gurss said he believes the new benchmark timelines will be challenging but achievable for many licensees.

“I think it's going to work as long as there's flexibility to accommodate those who, despite their best efforts, can't meet the schedule,” Gurss said. “It's essentially a way of trying to push the process faster. … I think the concern from some is that, without some very aggressive deadlines, it would allow a more casual process than they would like.”

NEW NPSPAC PLANNING TIMETABLE

Licensees unable to meet these deadlines can apply for waivers.

After planning funding approval, cost estimates are due in:

90 days for systems with 5000 or fewer subscriber units

100 days for systems with 5001-10,000 subscriber units

110 days for systems with more than 10,000 subscriber units

If planning already has started, cost estimates are due by:

Oct. 15 for Wave 1

Nov. 15 for Wave 2

Dec. 15 for Wave 3

SPRINT'S NEW OBLIGATIONS

Clear Channel 1-120 incumbents by Dec. 26, 2007.*

Cease own operations in Channel 1-120 spectrum within 90 days of NPSPAC licensee request.

After Jan. 1, 2008, cease Channel 1-120 operations within 60 days of NPSPAC licensee request.

Vacate the entire Channel 1-120 band by June 26, 2008.

*Deadline does not apply to some licensees that are rebanding Channel 1-120 spectrum and NPSPAC channels simultaneously.

Source: FCC