Public-safety agencies nationwide will gain access to new spectrum in the 800 MHz band in 18 months, under proposed rules that the FCC will consider during its next open meeting scheduled for Oct. 15.

These new airwaves currently are interleaved channels used by wireless carrier Sprint Nextel, which is financing the massive rebanding effort in the 800 MHz band. Chairman Kevin Martin today announced that the FCC proposal calls for Sprint Nextel to vacate all of its interleaved channels by March 31, 2010, FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said.

“It basically puts a hard deadline on Sprint to vacate the interleaved channels,” Kenny said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “Although they’re going to start vacating interleaved channels almost immediately, the hard deadline is March 31, 2010, to be completely out of the interleaved.”

Sprint Nextel has 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 planning for use of the frequencies. Kenny described the proposal as a “compromise” between the two positions.

When Sprint Nextel should vacate the interleaved channels has been a source of contention for almost a year, with the carrier taking the matter to court earlier this year. Although the federal appeals court upheld the FCC ruling that Sprint Nextel would have to vacate the spectrum this summer, the FCC has granted multiple extensions allowing the carrier to continue using the interleaved channels, which are critical to the operation of its iDEN network.

Although Sprint Nextel is expected to begin clearing interleaved spectrum soon, the FCC has not yet announced a method for public-safety agencies to apply for channels when they become available. Industry sources have said many agencies are anxious to use the spectrum, which can be utilized by many existing LMR systems.