Refarming: The telecom ‘agribusiness’ of the next decade
The technical issues affecting the refarming process have been decided, as far as the FCC is concerned, but telecommunications politics are making the destiny of private radio increasingly unsure.
Nearly five years have passed since the FCC began the task of “refarming” the radio spectrum below 800MHz, to narrow the channels from their present 15kHz or 25kHz size to a trim 6.25kHz. Although the initial work performed by the agency suggested that everyone’s system could be “adjusted” to accommodate the new channel spacing with little more than the turn of a magic screw, the reality is quite different.
Critics of the entire process have been numerous, but none could defeat the enormous pressure put on the FCC by a phalanx of manufacturers salivating at the prospect of profits to be made by the forced obsolescence of existing radio equipment. Early roundtable discussions among proponents of narrowbanding usually included long recitations of the new technology that each manufacturer could bring to the market to make narrowband equipment viable. Physics aside, or ignored, most of the champions of refarming talked about performance equivalent to present systems.
However, any operator who has now “experimented” with 220MHz-222MHz amplitude-companded single-sideband (ACSSB) systems recognizes that these new technologies are still fighting an uphill battle. Although VHF trunking systems benefit more from improved propagation than do 800MHz trunking systems, some of the propagation gains are also lost because of narrowband operations. High-speed data uses are, for the most part, precluded, and getting the darn things to “sound right” has been a major hurdle.
While manufacturers and operators have been wrestling with these problems, the FCC has been engaged in a wrestling match of its own in hammering out issues in PR Docket 92-235. Politics have played a large role in shaping the past decisions and future methods of refarming, and the most recent information demonstrates that politics will still play a part in what private radio looks like in the future.
Rules in general are ‘iffy’ Although the FCC is far from finished with its transformation of the private radio spectrum, a number of new rules and policies have already been decided. The ones discussed here do not make a complete list (this magazine would wind up looking like the telephone book), but they do indicate a general idea of where private radio is headed.
If you are a licensee of a primary frequency, and you do not change anything about your system, then the refarming rules will have no immediate effect on your operation. You do not have to go out and buy new equipment. In fact, you can replace your present equipment with equally wideband equipment (if it’s available). Ultimately, you are likely to want to replace your equipment with narrowband equipment, but you do not have to.
If you are a licensee on a UHF-offset channel, that use can change from low-power to high-power, and primary status has come_although at this writing, the FCC is not yet accepting applications for higher power on UHF-offset channels, despite what some of the application mills have been telling the suckers.
If you add a new channel to your system, or apply for a new frequency at a new location, your request will be subject to new height and power limitations contained within the FCC Rules (maximum effective radiated power [ERP] of 500W). These limitations are similar to those for common carrier operations. If the height and power restrictions do not satisfy your needs, the FCC will accept an engineering exhibit and a justification to get greater coverage from a single site. No waiver is required, but some justification beyond, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” will be required. The exceptions that will require waivers are applicants requesting a service area of greater than 80km and applicants desiring greater height and power from stations sharing frequencies with VHF Public Coast stations.
If you are operating paging facilities on private frequencies allocated for this purpose, your facilities are not subject to the height and power restrictions or, if shared, to auction. So private carrier paging companies are getting a break.
If you are a manufacturer, new applications for type-acceptance of affected radio devices must comply with the first splits, 12.5kHz for UHF and 7.25kHz for VHF, to receive grant of authority to market new devices within the United States. After 2005, all devices must be capable of operation in 6.25kHz of bandwidth, or less.
If you are a licensee of an ACSSB facility that uses VHF channels_well, your group could hold a meeting in a phone booth. The idea that created this method of operation in the early 1980s has been found wanting, and the FCC is getting rid of that allocation. You can continue to operate (albeit with increasing interference problems) until Aug. 1, 2003.
Although the above rules appear to be pretty well set, the evolution is continuing, and some additional fine tuning is likely to occur. The certainties are that the channels will be narrowed; that existing licensees do not have to seek license modifications, except when voluntary; manufacturers of equipment are going to make a bunch of dough; and systems will lose range and quality. The net effect may be that systems will require integrated series of co-channel facilities to perform as well as existing, higher-powered, wider-channel systems.
Frequency coordinators In its original Notice of Proposed Rule Making, the FCC suggested that the number of coordinating entities might be reduced to no more than four, with one being a “Public Safety coordinator” (read, “APCO”).* Later, the FCC appeared to be waffling on this idea. Now, the matter is still a curious one. The FCC’s latest decision does not appear to put coordinators out of business, but it is likely to reduce the number, in any event.
Stating that competition among coordination services providers is a good thing, the FCC is adopting the LMCC-ITA plan of dividing all of the spectrum below 470MHz into two pools, Private Wireless and Public Safety. The Private Wireless channels would be coordinated among competing coordinators, eliminating interservice sharing costs. The exceptions are power, railroad and central station electrical protection system frequencies, which would still be coordinated by their industry groups for channels that were traditionally allocated only for the specific purposes served by these groups. Other than radio service, the present limitations on specific frequency use (e.g., airport operations, availability only in Puerto Rico) would be largely maintained.
The FCC has stated that it expects the coordinators to create a system whereby each would communicate daily with the others to “coordinate the coordinations.” It is not known which entity will mastermind the system to ensure that this virtually real-time exchange of information takes place. What steps the FCC will take to monitor the system’s use is also a mystery. But, somehow, the agency believes it will all work.
Chances are that many of the existing coordinating entities will simply drop out of view as the new demands to compete among coordinating entities become reality. Obviously, PCIA and ITA are not going anywhere, and APCO has an almost-permanent charter. UTC is hanging in there, and appears to be getting stronger in some ways, while services like telephone maintenance, taxicab, motion picture and others appear to be fading faster than Nextel’s 800MHz Consensus Proposal.
At this point, the FCC has not suggested that the actual licensing duties be taken up by the coordinators-with the FCC being more of an official database than an actual processor-but the writing is slowly being scrawled on the wall. In the FCC’s Gettysburg, PA, office, an increasing number of independent contractors are doing data entry, and the consumer assistance branch is being scrapped in favor of the agency’s new “call center.” The Licensing Division is being revamped, modernized and positioned for a new mission that is yet unexplained.
The downsizing of the Gettysburg staff appears to be in preparation for the day that all applications will be received electronically. I do not profess to be the most computer-literate guy in town. (In fact, Mr. Brown, my partner, describes my capabilities using words like “throwback” and “technojerk.”) Nevertheless, I still find it hard to understand how the FCC plans to collect and associate petitions, waivers, engineering studies and the like (along with the electronic forms that will make up applications, thereby reducing the need for staff) unless these duties are outsourced to third parties. If this is what the FCC is planning, where is the Notice of Proposed Rule Making on the subject? I would be somewhat chagrined to discover that the agency has planned this move for years, including making purchasing and hiring decisions based on this conclusion, prior to seeking mandated comments from the public.
Thrills from the mills Although the FCC has attempted to rationalize the future use of narrowband channels among existing and future licensees, conspicuously absent in the decisions is any effort to halt the actions of applications mills. Logic and experience should tell the agency that the creation of the new channels will ignite a brush fire of speculation activity fueled by the greed of applications mills. It does not take much imagination to hear the pitch now:
“The FCC has created new systems for serving the largest metropolitan areas, and for only $10,000, you can invest in the newest service in the New York City area! Can I put you down for a unit? How about our Gold Circle club for only $20,000 more?!”
I’ve already gotten wind of one outfit that invested its future in UHF-offset frequencies, and plans to roll it over by getting the suckers’ licenses modified to raise the power shown on the useless licenses sold for $7,500-a-whack. Something needs to be done to keep the newly created channels from becoming inventory for scam artists, and the FCC should adopt regulations to combat the problem.
If the adoption of refarming is to be the final solution for private radio channels below 512MHz, the spectrum should be reserved for the entities that the agency claims to be assisting through the creation of additional channels. Perhaps the FCC should adopt a certification program that extends to all application preparers; or should seek greater responsibility from frequency coordinators; or should require evidence of site availability. Whichever method develops a barricade against the abuse of the Commission’s application and licensing processes, and protects the American public and legitimate operators from this scandalous behavior, should be made a part of the refarming rules. If not, the likely outcome is a public shame on the agency.
Odds And Ends Other points of interest that might help you better understand the changes brought by refarming are: If you voluntarily change from traditional equipment to narrowband equipment, but no modification is required, the FCC would like for you to notify it of the change by letter or notification via a Form 405A (or the “let us hear from you” rule).
The FCC dumped the idea of creating a new class of 3.125kHz offset frequencies as impractical, and silly, after PCIA’s representatives explained to the agency that, really, narrowband and microwave are not the same thing.
The FCC has created a few new frequencies for itinerant use. (They did, however, resist referring to the new itinerant channels as “red dot” or “green dot” channels, which would have helped clarify the ruling for companies like Sam’s Club.)
There is a new emission designator category for systems authorized to transmit voice, data and fax. The new designator is “W7W” (because “A1A” already runs through Florida). P Stations operating above 800MHz may transmit the station identifier in a digital mode, but stations operating below 800 MHz will still be required to give the call sign in analog. (Smoke signals are still not accepted.)
Comments, suggestions, ruminations If you checked the by-line of this story, you might have expected that some comments would be forthcoming, particularly given the sweeping effect of these regulations. I have made it this far into the piece without really saying my piece_but let’s get real. As Tina Turner said, “We never do nothin’ nice and easy.”
To begin, ask these questions: If spectrum scarcity was the motivation for refarming, is that motivation still valid in view of the auctioned spectrum blocks of the last five years? Was spectrum ever scarce in rural areas? In the FCC’s earlier roundtable discussions regarding refarming, how many operators participated in those discussions? If narrowband channels are a good idea, why didn’t the FCC require cellular, PCS and all of the “newer” services to adopt this approach to spectrum efficiency? And if this idea really smells, why did few alleged “advocates” of operators’ rights step forward to defend the current channelization plan?
I’m guessing that most readers can answer all of the above questions. The answers should disturb you, because they speak volumes about the status of our industry and the regulation of the radio spectrum. The answers point to the exclusion of a market segment that relies on private radio spectrum to produce and to transport goods and services that feed, clothe, illuminate, heat and house the American public. How-and-when private radio licensees became an unimportant annoyance to the FCC is not easy to pinpoint, but they have, and refarming is the greatest indicator of this new paradigm.
Spectrum refarming is an idea that was to increase sales for radio equipment manufacturers and to increase the number of channels prior to the FCC’s grant of auction authority. In fairness, the spectrum scarcity that existed in 1992 within large cities demanded attention of some kind. However, it is doubtful that a single operator of a single community repeater lobbied for these rules. As further evidence that the FCC itself is not as “gung-ho” about refarming as it once was, consider these two facts: 1) It has taken a long time to get here; and 2) The same idea has not been mirrored for use of common carrier channels. Why, and why not?
The answers are that the FCC is touting refarming as a method of increasing the efficient use of private radio channels, while stating that broadband services, like PCS, increase efficient use of the spectrum. The agency staff tells us that spread spectrum will revolutionize the way that people communicate, then that staff creates more discreet narrow channels for private users_channels that will not accommodate this transmission method. The trade publications are filled with new methods for transmitting high speed data, but the data rate that is possible on narrowband, refarmed spectrum is less than 20% of present capacity.
It does not take a genius (because I don’t qualify) to figure out that the telecommunications game is being played in two distinct arenas. The one that promises the big auction dollars is being rewarded with wide bands, flexible use, and incentives to warehouse spectrum for years. The one being played for private spectrum involves users being told to “get small, get slow and keep quiet.” The destiny of private radio is being made increasingly unsure through these actions. However, one political fact is becoming obvious.
The agency will do little to accommodate any user who didn’t shell out at auction for channels.
Is this proper? I, for one (and only one at times), do not think so. Bethlehem Steel should be provided the ability to increase its plants’ telecommunications efficiencies through introduction of new technologies, without having to buy a license to serve the entire Northeastern Pennsylvania Region. Federal Express should be able to increase its data capacity on its systems throughout the United States without having to purchase a wideband, nationwide license for billions of dollars. A community repeater operator should not have to force new, narrowband equipment on its tow truck customer just to satisfy the FCC’s grand scheme (in which even the agency itself does not completely believe).
Relief for public safety entities might be on the horizon in the form of the reallocation of television channels 60-69. Congress could cobble out some wideband channels for public safety uses that would allow local governments to more efficiently use new technologies. However, little or no relief is in sight for private users. Their chances of obtaining a frequency block, like the blocks sold to commercial carriers, are equal to my chance of being named Reed Hundt’s senior advisor. So, private business users will be forced to make do, unless they want to pay high air time rates to commercial carriers to provide service for their internal facilities.
It is ironic that refarming will encourage some of the largest users of telecommunications equipment to opt for more services provided by commercial carriers. The universe of commercial carriers for the equipment manufacturers and suppliers to market to is smaller than the universe of large private users. Therefore, some of the equipment manufacturers that originally supported refarming might ultimately lose market share as they lose direct contact with large equipment purchasers.
The final issue involves exclusivity of use on the new narrower channels. The FCC has not stated whether exclusive use will be allowed or how exclusivity might be earned or purchased. One can imagine a number of ways that exclusive use might come about. I predict that exclusive use will happen, particularly in view of the FCC’s desire to reduce the man-hours necessary to resolve disputes among sharing operators. Because the auction price paid per channel (particularly narrow ones) is likely to decrease rapidly, the FCC might not even employ its auction authority in awarding exclusivity.
The road to refarming has been bumpy. It isn’t going to get any smoother, but in Washington the line appears to be “It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than auctions.” Questions remain, and a lot needs to be discussed before the dust clears. My partner, Curt Brown, will be kicking up some of that dust on the refarming panel at IWCE, Las Vegas [“How spectrum refarming affects private radio,” Tuesday, April 22, at 2:30 p.m]. Mr. Brown, Ralph Haller and John Reardon will take any questions you have, but be kind if the answers you are given aren’t perfect. As I said, the system isn’t perfect yet and probably never will be. What can you expect from a square peg being forced into a round hole?
Schwaninger, MRT’s regulatory consultant, is a partner in the Washington, DC, law firm Brown and Schwaninger and is a member of the Radio Club of America.