When Congress decided to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety—in order to make possible a nationwide broadband network for first responders—it asked for something in return.  It’s a decision that today is haunting many private land-mobile-radio (LMR) system operators in the business-and-industrial (B/I) sector, because the FCC has frozen their operations.

Originally, Congress set its sights on 700 MHz spectrum that public-safety uses for narrowband operations in return for reallocating the D Block to public safety. Instead, it opted for UHF spectrum between 470-512 MHz—known as the T-Band—that is being used by public-safety agencies in the following 11 cities/metropolitan areas:

·         Boston

·         Chicago

·         Dallas/Ft. Worth

·         Washington, D.C. (including parts of Virginia and Maryland)

·         Houston

·         Los Angeles

·         Miami

·         New York City/Northeast New Jersey

·         Philadelphia

·         Pittsburgh

·         San Francisco/Oakland

The spectrum is scheduled to be auctioned no later than February 2021, and users must vacate the band within two years of the auction’s conclusion. In the meantime, the FCC has instituted a freeze that prevents incumbent T-Band users from expanding their systems, and precludes the licensing of new systems— even in areas where spectrum capacity is available.

While some believe that the decision by Congress to seize the T Band was shortsighted—primarily because there isn’t enough spectrum to accommodate the relocation of large incumbent public-safety users, such as the New York City Police Department—many B/I users in the band believe they were caught in the crossfire of a policy decision that has “quid pro quo” stamped all over it.

As one attendee said during a T-Band users group meeting held during the recent 2013 Wireless Leadership Summit in St. Louis—co-presented by the Enterprise Wireless Alliance and USMSS, which represents LMR dealers and radio-service shops—the B/I licensees in the T Band have been “sucked down the vortex” of Congress’s decision to take back those airwaves. Several other attendees said that the freeze is severely impacting their operations.

While these licensees have the option of filing waivers with the FCC asking that the commission lift the freeze, such efforts are unlikely to succeed, said Liz Sachs, EWA’s regulatory counsel.

“Business and Industrial has a much tougher hurdle” in terms of securing such waivers than does public safety, Sachs said.

Nevertheless, Sachs added that licensees that were on the cusp of receiving a T-Band license when the freeze was instituted absolutely should consider filing a waiver request.

“The [FCC’s stopping of] applications that were filed before the freeze was announced was pretty harsh, and unusual,” she said.

Another attendee’s firm—located about 40 miles outside of New York City—operates a system that serves highway departments, public-transportation agencies, parks-and-recreation entities and school districts. The firm’s application for 16 additional T-Band channels was coordinated by EWA. He said that everything was proceeding according to plan, until the FCC implemented its freeze.

“We were expecting a grant any day when the freeze came,” he said. “So, it has affected our business severely. … We’re in a spectrally challenged environment, and now we’re not going to be able to expand our system. This really has put us in harm’s way. We were literally very close to getting that grant.”

Yet another attendee said that he has a 10-channel T-Band license application pending, in addition to two four-channel sites in the band that likely “will go away,” as well as another site that needs an additional channel that the FCC won’t approve because of the freeze. 

“I’m mad,” he said.

EWA President and CEO Mark Crosby said he suspects that there are a great many similar stories within the B/I sector—and he wants to hear about them. The more lobbying ammunition the EWA has at its disposal to try to convince the FCC to lift the freeze, the better, in Crosby’s opinion.

“We need to beat the drums,” he said.

But Crosby advised that affected licenses speak in specifics when sharing their stories.

“The FCC doesn’t want to hear that the freeze is bad for the economy—that falls on deaf ears,” Crosby said. “They know that already. What they want to hear about are the instances where you simply can’t serve your customers because of the freeze.”

It was suggested during the meeting that the B/I sector combine forces with public safety to muster a united lobbying effort to get Congress to reconsider its T-Band mandate. But Crosby expressed doubts that such a united front is feasible at this juncture, in part because public-safety’s leadership right now doesn’t believe that the time is right for a T-band attack, given the current makeup of Congress.

“Plus, they have a lot of balls in the air,” Crosby said. “They’re using a lot of political capital over at FirstNet. They can only wage war on so many fronts.”