First mover’s disadvantage
When Congress passed a law in 1997 allocating 24 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum to public safety, first-responder agencies applauded the action and eagerly awaited the ability to add the frequencies to many spectrum-strapped systems across the country.
Of course, public safety could use the spectrum only if it was cleared by television broadcasters, something that is scheduled to happen this month — unless a last-minute push to delay the digital-television transition is successful. However, in areas of the country that did not have a TV incumbent using the spectrum, public-safety entities were given the opportunity to start using the 700 MHz frequencies several years ago.
But those agencies that jumped at the chance to use the newly available spectrum for narrowband applications have found themselves in the middle of a web of regulatory entanglements. Their networks now must be relocated — FCC officials typically have avoided the term “rebanding,” although the process is fundamentally the same as the ongoing effort at 800 MHz — to clear 10 MHz of broadband spectrum for first-responder use that is licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST).
When the FCC changed the 700 MHz band plan in 2007, the PSST’s spectrum was supposed to be paired with the commercial D Block to provide the spectral foundation for a nationwide, public/private shared network that first responders could use to run broadband applications. Meanwhile, the PSST would coordinate the relocation of existing narrowband operations in the band, while the winner of the D Block auction would fund the relocations by paying a maximum of $10 million, which the FCC believed would be enough to cover all costs.
Many public-safety officials questioned whether the $10 million cap was enough, but the matter became irrelevant when the D Block auction failed to attract a qualifying bid. The failed auction means no funding source exists to pay to relocate 700 MHz narrowband networks.
It’s a reality that largely has been overlooked as policymakers have focused their attentions on the high-profile broadband issues in the 700 MHz band, said PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen.
“I don’t think anybody’s paying attention that these people are sitting in the middle of no place in terms of narrowband funding,” McEwen said. “For those 47 agencies, this is terrible — they’ve been waiting for more than a year and nothing’s been decided. … They’re stuck.”
Last year, the FCC considered a proposal that would have provided some relief to narrowband users, calling for a $27 million cap to pay for relocation and allowing narrowband systems to remain on their current channels until a year after the D Block winner made re-location funding available.
But the FCC failed to take action on the proposed rulemaking, which means commission rules passed in 2007 governing narrowband relocation — better known as the original D Block rules — remain in effect. Those rules, still cited on the FCC Web site, call for 700 MHz narrowband operators to be relocated by the DTV transition date of Feb. 17, 2009.
Technically, the 700 MHz narrowband systems operating on TV channels 63 and 68 would be in violation of FCC rules as of Feb. 17, but the agency does not plan to take any enforcement action at the moment, said Rob Kenny, spokesman for the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau.
“We don’t anticipate any ramifications for not moving, given the fact that the D Block issue is pending before the commission and the uncertainty regarding the potential delay in the DTV transition deadline,” Kenny said.
That’s welcome news for the Colorado statewide radio system, which has been expanding its 800 MHz operations and adding 700 MHz capability to the network, said Dennis Kalvels, communication services engineering manager for the Colorado governor’s office of information technology. More than half of the 30,000 radios on the system are capable of using 700 MHz channels, and the number grows as subscribers are added every month, he said.
“We alone would use up a big hunk of that $10 million [the original relocation cost cited by the FCC], because we probably have 16,000 radios that would need to be touched, as well as 19 sites,” Kalvels said. “If you use the same numbers that you used for 800 [MHz rebanding], that’s going to add up to some dollars.”
Even if enough funding was available, Kalvels expressed doubt that Colorado could be relocated under the current FCC rules, which call for public-safety agencies to pay for the relocation and later be reimbursed from the money provided by the winner of the D Block auction. Colorado was the first major system to complete 800 MHz rebanding, but it was not easy to get that work approved because the payment plan — bills were paid by Sprint Nextel, not the state — was unique, he said.
A reimbursement system of payment for 700 MHz relocation likely would receive an even more unwelcome reception by state administrators, because Colorado — like all states — is experiencing a budget crunch as a result of the economic downturn, Kalvels said.
“It’s been difficult enough to get [800 MHz rebanding] through, even without having to pay for it — it’s a cost-neutral thing,” he said. “But if, all of a sudden, you have to pay for [700 MHz relocation] and then you get reimbursed, it’s just not going to fly.”
While the cost-neutrality aspect of 800 MHz rebanding is needed for 700 MHz relocation, Kalvels said he would not mind skipping the lengthy negotiations and other time-consuming aspects that became the hallmark of the 800 MHz process.
“[That] process was highly cumbersome and unwieldy,” he said. “I’d like to see something more streamlined [for 700 MHz].”
Many public-safety officials have feared that the 700 MHz relocation process would be more streamlined simply because there would not be enough money to fund all the needed work. After seeing Sprint Nextel’s estimate that the 800 MHz reconfiguration would cost the company almost $3 billion, FCC officials decided commercial operators would want a capped figure for 700 MHz relocation or they would not bid on the D Block.
Initially, Motorola submitted a filing in 2007 that stated all of its customers’ 700 MHz systems could be relocated for $10 million, which is the number the FCC used to set its initial cap. In the latest FCC proposal, the cap was set at $27 million — a figure that public-safety officials quickly deemed to be too low. Motorola submitted a filing in November in which it estimated the 700 MHz relocation cost to be $76 million, noting that a “worst-case” scenario would be significantly more costly.
And that number promises to further increase, as systems like Colorado continue to add subscribers and expand their networks under FCC waivers. In fact, the Colorado state system is quickly exhausting its assigned 700 MHz frequencies under the old FCC band plan, Kalvels said.
“I made it clear in the waiver that we continually add 700 [MHz] users,” he said. “Public safety needs to drive this thing instead of some arbitrary rule that the FCC sets.”
While McEwen has called the limbo in which 700 MHz narrowband users currently find themselves “horrific” for public safety, the situation is not that dire, according to Kalvels and Scott Snow, frequency manager for the city of Phoenix. Snow said his first task after being hired in 2007 was to file a waiver request that allows the city to add radios to its rather modest deployments on the old 700 MHz channels.
“I remember language saying, ‘Do what you can to minimize deploying any stuff on these old channels,’ which we’re doing,’ Snow said.
Phoenix is hopeful that Motorola will relocate 700 MHz narrowband equipment as it performs maintenance work on the system in the spring, Snow said. The vendor would then seek reimbursement from the FCC-designated funding source, he said.
But Snow expressed sympathy for those public-safety agencies that will be adding 700 MHz relocation to other tasks, including the execution of contracts tied to the $1 billion in federal interoperability grants and 800 MHz rebanding for entities located along the Mexican border.
Snow described any operation that involves touching all radios in the Phoenix area as a “logistical nightmare,” so entities that have not rebanded their 800 MHz channels would have incentive to reconfigure their 700 MHz frequencies at the same time, if possible.
Unfortunately, in most cases the timing will not allow simultaneous reconfiguration of both bands, even if rules permit such a strategy. Kalvels noted that, even if the D Block was auctioned last year as scheduled, Colorado would have had to reconfigure the bands separately.
“We were too far along in the 800 [MHz rebanding] to include the 700 [MHz reconfiguration],” Kalvels said. “We’re going to have to touch them again. I don’t see any way around it.”