The readers always write
It’s always fun to hear from our readers, and over the last few weeks I’ve been having more fun than usual, as readers weighed in heavily on two recent columns.
In one, I wrote that the FCC should reconsider the deadline it imposed on Sprint Nextel to vacate its interleaved channels in the 800 MHz band by June 26 because public-safety licensees are not yet in a position to migrate to these channels and Sprint needs them to continue its operations until it can move to the channels vacated by public safety. I argued that enforcing what is now a premature migration would create an undue burden for the already beleaguered carrier.
In the other column, I suggested that Congress needs to rethink its priorities because, while it has been able to find billions of dollars to explore Mars in the hope of discovering whether the planet ever hosted Martians—and NASA plans to spend billions, perhaps trillions, more—it can’t seem to see the wisdom of creating the funding mechanism needed to build the nationwide broadband wireless network for first responders that would help to keep Earthlings safer.
Regarding Sprint, readers were virtually unanimous in the belief that the FCC should stick it to them. They see Sprint as the evil empire, the greedy monolith that not only created the interference problem in the 800 MHz band but also is responsible for the slow pace of reconfiguration. Readers also didn’t seem all that concerned with any financial burdens that Sprint might experience as a result of being forced to meet the June 26 deadline, which was the original date set for the completion of rebanding.
One of the more thoughtful responses came from a two-way radio dealer in the Southwest who reminded me that the carrier’s operations also are causing harmful interference to commercial private systems. He wrote that the money it is costing him to deal with this problem is far greater proportionally than what rebanding is costing the nation’s third-largest wireless carrier, which generated $40 billion in revenue last year. I have to admit, I hadn’t really thought about that, and he makes an excellent point.
I certainly understand the emotion and frustration and desire to punish a company that is perceived as a profit-gobbling pirate that couldn’t care less about the damage it leaves in its wake. Rebanding was a hot-button issue when I first got involved with MRT going on five years ago, and it looks like it will continue to be a hot-button issue for several more years. That would irritate me, too, if I were a first responder—or an operator of a commercial private system, for that matter.
But Sprint is not solely to blame for the rebanding fiasco.
(Column interruption: To the reader who suggested that I might be in Sprint’s pocket—and to anyone else who might be thinking it—well, I’m not. I’m just calling them as I see them. I did the same four-plus years ago, when I wrote that capping Sprint’s financial contribution to the rebanding effort at $850 million was crazy because a complete reconfiguration of the band had never been attempted, so it was impossible to predict what such an effort would cost. Public-safety officials, driven by their frustration with the interference being caused by Nextel and fearing for the lives of the first responders in their command, were all too eager to take that $850 million proposal. At the time, we were accused of “upsetting the applecart.” Well, if so, I’m glad we did, because Sprint spent $1 billion before even the first public safety licensee was moved to its new channels.)
Back to the column: The FCC also is to blame for this mess. It is because of the commission’s spectrum policies at the time that Nextel was able to cobble together a nationwide network by taking over the licenses of private system operators. (One of the reasons that the FCC didn’t institute an enforcement action against Sprint is that it knew Sprint would challenge the action in federal court and believed the court would side with Sprint.)
The FCC’s decision to interleave channels in the 800 MHz band also has contributed mightily to the interference problem. And the commission was too slow in clarifying the “lowest-cost” provision of its reconfiguration order, which led to long-drawn-out planning funding negotiations between Sprint and public-safety licensees, who argued over every last penny.
Consequently, I believe Sprint should be treated fairly. Yes, the FCC needs to keep the pressure on Sprint. But it shouldn’t impose unnecessary burdens, which I believe it will do by forcing the carrier to prematurely abandon the interleaved channels. That just strikes me as unfair and I think the commission should reconsider. Perhaps a compromise could be negotiated. After all, rebanding itself is a negotiated solution.
Regarding Congress and the nationwide broadband wireless network for first responders, several readers reminded me that NASA scientists conceived many of the modern conveniences we take for granted. I hadn’t thought about that either. These reader comments triggered my curiosity, so I did some research. I was startled to discover that, according to About.com, roughly 1400 NASA inventions were later adapted for consumer use and which truly do make life better. Among these are kidney dialysis machines, CAT (computer-aided tomography) scanners, freeze-dried food, water purification systems, and cordless tools and appliances. Indeed, digital-signaling technology developed to transmit photos from the moon back to Earth are credited with improving CAT and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology.
So, let’s keep NASA around to do what it does. But maybe we can put off the mission to fly astronauts to Mars—which will cost taxpayers an estimated trillion dollars (at least)—until after a taxpayer-funded nationwide broadband wireless network for first responders is built. I would argue that such a network would have a much greater impact on American lives—particularly those who have sworn to serve and protect the rest of us—than a morning glass of Tang.
E-mail me at email@example.com.
Mea Culpa: Thanks to the eagle-eyed readers who pointed out that the $25 billion NASA spent on the Apollo program translates to $104 billion in today’s dollars, not $104 trillion as I wrote. I apologize for the error. It is true: journalists generally do well with words, but not so well with numbers.