Rolling up the sleeves
Though many 800 MHz public safety entities are still mired in negotiations with Sprint Nextel to complete a final rebanding agreement, a substantial number of National Public Safety Planning Advisory Committee, or NPSPAC, licensees have participated in regional or statewide implementation planning sessions to determine when the actual work of rebanding will be done — in some cases, apparently several years from now.
As of the end of 2007, the 800 MHz Transition Administrator (TA) had conducted 15 of these implementation planning meetings that have been attended by 211 NPSPAC licensees, which collectively have almost 400,000 radios in their systems, TA Director Brett Haan said. The meetings, which feature input from licensees, vendors and Sprint Nextel, are used to identify the best path for executing the oft-complex engineering task.
“These meetings outline the dependencies associated with implementation,” Haan said. “The planning sessions also allow for the development of realistic and comprehensive implementation schedules and completion dates that came from working with the licensees.”
During the last four years, the 800 MHz rebanding effort often has been a topic of widely varying opinions, if not outright conflicting views. But participants in the implementation planning sessions almost unanimously have applauded the meetings, which have enabled licensees to learn from each other and grasp the scope of this massive undertaking.
“The positives were that it brought all the parties together, it prioritized what needed to be done, it set some realistic expectations about timelines and it gave everybody a goal to work for,” said Steve Proctor, executive director for the Utah Communications Agency Network (UCAN).
Most implementation planning session participants have said the meetings have been an eye-opening experience, although often for different reasons.
With many NPSPAC licensees entering the meetings after more than a year of oft-frustrating negotiations with Sprint Nextel, focused discussion on rebanding implementation helped remind licensees that “this is really going to happen,” Proctor said.
Haan said he believes the defining moment of each session is when licensees recognize the need for coordinated rebanding efforts in each geographic region to ensure a smooth and effective transition — a sentiment echoed by Alan Tilles, who represents several NPSPAC licensees as a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker.
“They’re very boring, but they may be the most useful meetings that these folks have,” Tilles said. “It’s interesting, because it’s almost as if you can see light bulbs go on in people’s minds when they realize the interdependencies these systems have with one another.”
While Haan describes the results of these sessions as exciting, the process used during the meetings is anything but, Tilles said. During the sessions, licensees describe the status of their rebanding efforts, which is documented by TA representatives. After considering myriad factors — everything from equipment availability to interoperability agreements — a coordinated activity timeline is established and distributed to each licensee.
“This is really where the rubber meets the road in terms of heavy-duty technical discussions,” Tilles said.
Although much of the discussion is highly technical, some of the most influential factors revolve around logistical issues that are understandable to anyone. For instance, in Utah, retuning of mountaintop sites is scheduled during the summer, when it is much easier for technical personnel to access the sites.
To engage in such detailed planning, it is critical that licensees fully understand the scope of the work facing them, such as the number of subscriber units and infrastructure radios that need to be reprogrammed or replaced. So far, licensees have come to the implementation sessions well-prepared from this perspective, in part because the TA typically arranges an implementation planning session only after 70% of the licensees in the affected region have signed a final rebanding agreement.
Tilles said meetings held earlier in the process can be helpful where multiple agencies interoperate on frequencies other than mutual-aid channels, but he believes the policy generally is prudent.
“You know when there is a meeting for the region that the region is starting to take shape, and we’re starting to put our arms around the region,” Tilles said.
Haan said implementation planning sessions were conducted in 15 of the 55 NPSPAC regions last year, many of which are part of Wave 1 of the public safety—focused phase of rebanding. According to the FCC, all NPSPAC licensees in the 800 MHz band are supposed to move their operations to new channels by June 27 — a date that commission officials have not relaxed despite multiple requests from Sprint Nextel and some licensees.
A few licensees are in a position to meet this deadline, such as the 911 Communications Center in Cass County, Ind., which was scheduled to complete the reconfiguration of its 60-subscriber analog trunking system in late January.
However, Indiana’s statewide P25 system, known as Project Hoosier SAFE-T, is facing considerable rebanding challenges that are complicated by the fact that the buildout of the system is being completed simultaneously with rebanding, said Dave Smith, implementation director for the system.
As a result, Project Hoosier SAFE-T’s reconfiguration is scheduled for completion in 2009. Smith claimed that meeting the June 2008 deadline is “physically impossible” because the 38,000-radio system is still waiting for quotes from Motorola that are needed to begin negotiations with Sprint Nextel on a final rebanding deal.
“We’re not going to be too far beyond the 2009 date,” Smith said. “We’ve told [TA officials] very frankly that it’s going to take what time it takes … to do it correctly.”
It’s an approach that Proctor also has adopted for Utah’s statewide system. After being the first licensee in the nation to secure a planning/funding deal with Sprint Nextel in February 2006, UCAN completed its final rebanding agreement with the carrier in late November. UCAN hopes to complete its reconfiguration during the first quarter of 2009, he said.
“We have not had a formal conversation with the commission regarding the timeline of completion,” Proctor said. “In informal settings, we have made it clear that this process is going to take what it’s going to take, and we are going at it as fast as we can while keeping the existing boat afloat. We’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.”
And resources ultimately could prove to be a significant issue for licensees in the future, Proctor said. While early movers should be able to secure the resources necessary to complete their work close to the timetables established in the implementation planning sessions, licensees starting later in the process may have trouble getting trained personnel and equipment when they want them.
“I personally believe that, the deeper we get into this and we have more people doing it, the resources are going to be difficult to come by,” Proctor said.
Other public safety entities could be looking at much longer timelines that stretch well beyond next year. For instance, given the size and complexity of California’s statewide system, Glen Nash, senior telecommunications engineer for the State of California, has said the latter half of 2009 likely is the earliest that the first of several touches to the system’s radios would be completed.
Combined with the fact that the California state system’s territory includes a significant region along the Mexican border, where no international agreement has been reached, some industry observers have projected that it could be at least 2011 before rebanding of the system is completed.
“At first, I was surprised [by the projected completion dates], but not anymore,” Tilles said.