Rebanding problems out in the open
Anxiety about the 800 MHz rebanding process continued to escalate throughout January, when increased public evidence emerged that many licensee/Sprint Nextel negotiations are not working as designed, and public-safety representatives asked the FCC to intervene in an effort to correct the situation.
(Editor’s Note: At press time, the Transition Administrator team that is overseeing the rebanding process issued new procedures for licensees seeking funding for planning activities. For full details go to www.mrtmag.com.)
During the past month, 65 licensees operating in Channels 1-120 that failed to reach a negotiated reconfiguration agreement with Sprint Nextel entered mediation, Sprint Nextel spokesman Tim O’Regan said. Licensees disagreeing with the findings of the TA mediator can appeal their case to the FCC, but the agency has issued a public notice that the licensee must pay all costs associated with such an appeal (see timeline).
Meanwhile, most Wave 1 public-safety entities were preparing to enter into the voluntary negotiation phase scheduled to begin Feb. 1 without promised funding for planning, which many believe to be critical for the efficient and orderly rebanding of frequencies.
O’Regan said Sprint Nextel had approved only four of 28 planning-funding requests as of late January, noting that many licensees failed to provide appropriate detail in their requests. Meanwhile, many public-safety officials and consultants working on rebanding questioned the level of detailed documentation being required at such a preliminary stage.
“We’re scrutinizing and auditing estimates,” said Andy Maxymillian of Blue Wing Consultants. “I never dreamed there would be this much scrutiny over estimates. For the final payment, we all expect those to be audited and have to prove that … but how do you prove an estimate?”
Robert Gurss, director of legal and government affairs for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), expressed similar frustration that planning-funding requests have “evolved into a very detailed, very nickel-and-dime process” with relatively little money actually reaching public-safety entities. As a result, such agencies are having to front money for planning or else not embark on planning for reconfiguration, scenarios that were not envisioned by the FCC when it approved rebanding in July 2004.
“Before [public-safety entities] can negotiate a reconfiguration agreement, they need to do a fair amount of planning to determine how best to do that — so they don’t disrupt their operations and [do] maintain interoperability — and they don’t have the funds to do that,” Gurss said. “If that gets stalled, which it is, then it’s going to be hard for public-safety entities to meet the schedules that people want to meet.”
With this in mind, APCO and five other public-safety groups made a Jan. 12 filing with the FCC citing several problems with the planning-funding process.
“We believe the commission must be proactive in addressing these issues,” the filing stated. “The TA may also need to be a more active participant in order to drive the process forward. We cannot afford to allow this critical rebanding process to stall or for public-safety agencies to be forced into unreasonable or unsafe band-reconfiguration agreements.”
TA Deputy Project Manager Brett Haan said that the slow pace of requests for planning funding is “undeniably an issue” but one he believes is “solvable.”
“As long as the costs are reasonable and prudent, I don’t think there should be significant issues,” Haan said. “I think the attention being placed on it now highlights the importance of it, and I have faith that all parties are going to work to resolve this very quickly.”
The displeasure expressed by public-safety groups concerning the rebanding process was quite tame compared to the harsh criticism levied by RCC Consultants in a 143-page filing made weeks earlier. In the self-described “Pandora filing,” RCC Consultants, citing numerous public-safety clients, raised myriad potential issues, including the negative impact rebanding could have on licensees that are not relocated and the need for a plan to ensure that vehicular repeater systems are maintained without cost to operators.
But at the heart of the lengthy document is the notion that the TA and Sprint Nextel are so focused on scheduling and monetary issues that they are failing to fulfill the mission found in the title of the FCC’s order: “Improving Public-Safety Communications in the 800 MHz Band.”
“This is about improving public-safety communications; it’s not about saving money for Nextel,” said Carl Aron of RCC Consultants. “The name of the proceeding is ‘Improving Public-Safety Communications;’ the name of the proceeding is not, ‘Let’s make sure Nextel doesn’t bust its budget in rebanding.’”
Aron said the disconnect in negotiations stems from the fact that Nextel is a profit-oriented company and that those representing public-safety entities are charged with protecting first responders, as well as the residents and communities they serve, regardless of the cost.
“[Sprint Nextel] comes from the commercial side of life, not the life-and-death side of life, and that perspective is gigantically different,” Aron said. “If the Nextel system goes down, life is like that — maybe a taxicab won’t get properly dispatched. That’s not what happens when an officer is being fired on. That radio has to work every time, without fail — no discussion.
“If these systems don’t work properly, someone will die. That’s really what’s at stake here.”
O’Regan said the betterment of public-safety communications always has been the carrier’s priority.
“Nextel, and now Sprint Nextel, has been saying that this whole matter begins and ends with public safety — specifically eliminating the interference to them,” O’Regan said. “We remain committed to that goal and will continue to be, right through to the end of the reconfiguration process.”
Aron said Sprint Nextel’s actions in the negotiating process belie such statements. He noted that some proposals made by his clients have been rejected on the grounds that they cost too much, rather than being considered based on their necessity to maintain public-safety communications.
“There’s a theme here: Pay less,” RCC’s Aron said. “I don’t think Nextel’s positions are driven by any principle other than ‘pay less.’”
This philosophy is underscored in other tactics used by Sprint Nextel in negotiations, Aron said. He suggested that the carrier hides behind the TA when it doesn’t want to do what a licensee wants, but then balks anyway when the licensee suggests letting the TA determine whether the request is appropriate.
“So, it’s a game,” Aron said.
In response, Nextel’s O’Regan said, “Sprint Nextel takes its commitments extremely seriously regarding negotiations on 800 MHz reconfiguration, and we strongly object to any allegations that somehow we do not play fair with licensees.”
Nevertheless, Aron said many of his public-safety clients have expressed concern that many of the expenses incurred in rebanding would not be paid by Sprint Nextel, meaning the public-safety entity would have to bear the cost burden or the proposed item would not be done — perhaps at the risk of system performance degradation.
TA officials repeatedly have expressed the notion that their goal is to be fair to all parties involved in the rebanding proceeding. Aron acknowledged that no licensee should seek payments for costs not associated with rebanding, but said the mindset accompanying negotiations should be altered to reflect a public-safety-centric viewpoint.
“I don’t think there should be guidance on costs,” Aron said. “I think the proper way to go about this is for the TA to say … the only thing you’re allowed to argue about is the cost of implementing the licensee’s plan — not the plan that Nextel would prefer, but the plan that the licensee determined was necessary for the maintenance of the public-safety system.”
But Haan noted that the FCC’s rebanding order calls for rebanding agreements — including planning-funding agreements — to be the result of private negotiations, and the TA will not intervene unless the licensee or Sprint Nextel asks. And public-safety entities have sought the TA’s intervention in this manner only recently, he added.
“We want to encourage private-party negotiations with Nextel,” Haan said. “But at any time, either party can request facilitation … and then we can become part of the process. Until a party asks for facilitation, we are assuming that the negotiations between the parties are proceeding at their schedule.”