Nextel interference debate rages on
Discussions at the Federal Communications Commission over how to fix public-safety interference caused by Nextel Communications and other commercial mobile radio operators in the 800 MHz band have reached a fever pitch in recent weeks.
It’s clear the interference issue is one of the most complicated matters the commission has ever dealt with as members of the wireless industry — ranging from public-safety users to private wireless users to commercial wireless operators — stand deeply and religiously divided over the issue.
Nextel and a group of public-safety agencies, including the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, offered up their latest solution, dubbed the “consensus plan,” to the interference problem in a Christmas Eve filing last year, calling on the FCC to split the 800 MHz band into two parts: one for cellular systems and one for public-safety systems.
In exchange, Nextel wants to receive for free 10 megahertz of spectrum in the 1.9 GHz (1910-1915-1995 MHz) to make up for the 10 megahertz it will surrender in the 700, 800 and 900 MHz bands to fix interference problems.
The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, vehemently opposed to any free gift of spectrum at 1.9 GHz, along with entities from the electric, gas and water utilities, business and industrial users and incumbent SMR licensees have joined the 800 MHz User Coalition opposing Nextel’s plan and any rebanding of the 800 MHz band, preferring the FCC solve interference through a solution called the “balanced approach” that employs mandated mitigation using best practices solutions by establishing procedures to avoid interference instances as well as adding technical rule modifications and using more advanced technology.
Participants of the 800 MHz User Coalition say they would suffer harm from rebanding of the 800 MHz band.
“All suggestions (to the FCC) are reactive. The only proactive plan is the consensus plan,” Barry West, chief technology officer with Nextel, told analysts during the company’s recent second-quarter conference call. “The public-safety community and other consensus partners are still solidly behind the consensus plan.”
While large associations representing the affected users such as APCO, the Industrial Telecommunications Association (ITA) and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) continue to support Nextel’s consensus plan, some local and regional public-safety agencies, happy with their current systems and concerned about funding issues, are beginning to take a critical look at the consensus plan.
Earlier this summer, the City of Baltimore urged the NPSTC to review and support the balanced approach to solving the 800 MHz interference problem, stating that Baltimore already operates a modern trunked system that, while isn’t entirely free from interference, was purchased at great cost and meets the city’s needs.
NPSTC didn’t budge and asked Baltimore to reconsider its position, saying public safety everywhere is at risk.
“Whenever you have public safety agencies involved, it becomes a political problem,” said ITA President and CEO Laura Smith. “An officer or firefighter not getting the assistance they need is very much a political problem. That’s an unacceptable side effect. You can’t best-practice a problem away.”
Business plans are also at stake.
Mark Crosby, president of Access Spectrum, which is in the business of leasing spectrum to private wireless users, recently filed his comments with the FCC opposing the consensus plan. If the majority of private wireless users move from the 800 MHz band to free spectrum at 900 MHz, they would not need to lease spectrum from band managers.
“The particular element of the consensus plan that we don’t favor is the allocation of the 900 MHz band,” said Crosby, former longtime president of ITA. “The FCC would be giving it away for free whether users need it or not. We can fix the problem without all of the spectrum swaps.”
Indeed, few private-wireless licensees are experiencing interference but have been willing to relocate since Nextel upped its relocation price tag from $500 to $850 million, of which $150 million will pay for private wireless relocation.
Likewise, SouthernLINC, which operates the same iDEN system on the same frequencies as Nextel, opposes the consensus plan on the grounds that moving Nextel to new spectrum would diminish the value of frequencies held by non-Nextel licensees in the 700 and 800 MHz bands. By splitting the 800 MHz band, SouthernLINC and others would remain in the bands designated for public safety, restraining the use of their systems.
“We’re not having the same problems as Nextel,” said Michael Rosenthal, director of regulatory affairs with SouthernLINC. “We’re not causing any interference to anyone. We have signed on to the balanced approach, and we have stressed to Nextel and the commission that the consensus plan suffers from lack of competitive symmetry.”
Nextel, APCO and others are convinced the interference problem is severe, wide-spread and will worsen as commercial radio systems evolve, while opponents cite APCO’s own database that indicates just 1 percent of public-safety operators have reported interference problems.
Consensus plan proponents say that statistics have been taken out of context and never intended to constitute a valid sampling of interference problems.
Still, Brian Fontes, senior vice president of regulatory affairs with Cingular Wireless, asks: “Where are these complaints at the FCC? Where is the interference problems posted on the FCC’s Web site? What really is the level of interference? … Nextel’s own proposal admits that it has to go back and mitigate interference once rebanding has taken place.”
The balanced approach provides case-by-case reactive work and advocates technical solutions such as those offered by Motorola, which has told the FCC that advances in receiver technology and increased signal strength for public-safety systems could successfully resolve many of the interference problems.
Consensus advocates say best practices and Motorola’s technical fixes are only part of the solution.
“Best practices is not a new concept, and it has been determined that it is not an adequate solution,” said ITA’s Smith. “Public safety has been working on this already for some time.”
SouthernLINC’s Rosenthal and other supporters of the balanced approach say best-practice solutions will work when they are legally required.
“Best practices to date have been optional,” said Rosenthal. “If made mandatory, they would have a better chance of working … Best practices combined with new software creates a comprehensive solution that is proactive in areas where public safety is having problems.”
Another major issue the FCC will have to contend with is reimbursement.
While Nextel has agreed to fund up to $850 million to relocate incumbents in the 800 MHz band, critics say the Nextel proposal does not sufficiently assure that public-safety agencies will be reimbursed for relocation costs.
Given the impossibility of estimating costs, the cap Nextel is placing on relocation is unacceptable.
Likewise, the balanced approach proposal does not give any indication of what costs are involved or who might be responsible for software upgrade costs.
Those working closely with the FCC on the interference issue say the commission is far from reaching a decision.
And the commission is likely to shelve Nextel’s request for free spectrum at 1.9 GHz, the most controversial aspects of the consensus plan. Not only would Nextel receive precious spectrum in the 1.9 GHz band, but it would also have contiguous spectrum in the 800 MHz band instead of being split among the 700, 800 and 900 MHz bands.
CTIA, which finds Nextel’s request extremely problematic, recently told the FCC that Nextel’s 10-megahertz spectrum grab is valued between $4.5 million and $5.3 million based on recent and proposed commercial transactions in the 1.9 GHz band.