Representatives of Sprint Nextel and public-safety licensees operating at 800 MHz have jointly asked the FCC, in a letter to Chairman Kevin Martin, to direct the Transition Administrator (TA) to establish benchmarks addressing the implementation schedule for the reconfiguration project, which already is well behind the original 36-month schedule.

Currently, the TA has very specific guidelines for licensees and Sprint Nextel to negotiate rebanding deals, from dates to submit planning-funding requests to the time when the case must become the subject of mediation. However, there are no guidelines for completing the actual work, said Larry Krevor, Sprint Nextel’s vice president of government affairs for spectrum.

“The TA has the times when you start negotiating and—if the negotiations aren’t fruitful—when you start mediating, but there really aren’t any benchmarks or schedules about how we go about retuning people,” said Krevor, noting that it could take two years to complete retuning of all radios in some of the larger statewide public-safety radio networks.

Under the FCC order that created the rebanding project, the massive undertaking should be completed by the middle of 2008—a date that will be impossible to meet, according to virtually all participants in the process.

While there have been discussions about asking the FCC to extend the 2008 completion date, public safety has been fearful that such an action could stifle progress being made unless effective implementation benchmarks are established, said Wanda McCarley, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

“The challenge is to find public-safety agencies that are ready to move, identify them and make those moves happen this year,” McCarley said. “Beyond 2007, [the letter asks the] TA to find some benchmarks that are firm and can make sure things move along.

“I want some lines in the sand, much like the 20-market benchmark [the FCC established for clearing Channels 1-120]. Without that, I don’t even want to talk about opening up that 36 months. … [We need] something hard and firm that can be used to gauge progress.”

Under the TA’s already-extended schedule, all 323 Wave 1 NPSPAC licensees should have completed the mediation process and have final rebanding agreements in place. However, 69% of them still lack a rebanding deal, and 94% of the Wave 2 NPSPAC licensees entered mandatory mediation at the beginning of the month because they were not able to negotiate an agreement with Sprint Nextel.

When rebanding deals are reached, actually completing the work promises to be difficult, as finding enough equipment and technicians to do the tasks may be challenging as implementation schedules overlap.

In addition, Sprint Nextel faces a difficult transition for its iDEN network, which has suffered significant subscriber losses amid spectrum-capacity constraints in certain urban markets during the past several months—a situation that could get worse if rebanding is not planned carefully, Sprint Nextel’s Krevor said.

“Every one of those retunes requires a channel swap with us to perpetuate it, and we have to balance those out, so we’re not swapping everything out at the same time and can’t run our network,” he said. “There’s some hard work to do in planning, coordinating and scheduling, and it hasn’t really been done. The letter is basically asking the TA to work with all of us to do that.”

By having an implementation “blueprint,” Sprint Nextel can better utilize its resources and devise strategies—among them, deploying cell-on-wheels (COWs) technology or using dual-mode phones to shift iDEN traffic to its CDMA network—to serve its customers appropriately, Krevor said.

“In some cases, we’ll be able get off the channels easily, and in some cases, we may need to do more offloading traffic to the CDMA network,” he said. “There’s a number of ways to support it. Obviously, the only way to figure it out is to go ahead and plan it out.”