T-Band systems remain in limbo as 2021 deadline approaches
LAS VEGAS—Licensees of LMR systems operating on 470-512 MHz spectrum—known as T-Band frequencies—continue to wrestle uncertain futures as the legal mandate for public-safety T-Band networks to move to other airwaves increasingly appears to be impractical.
Under the 2012 law that established the First Authority and dedicated 700 MHz spectrum to the public-safety broadband initiative, public-safety T-Band systems in 11 of the largest markets are supposed to move to other frequencies, so the FCC can begin to auction the airwaves to commercial users in 2021. After the auction, T-Band systems are supposed to move their systems within two years.
Since the law was passed, the FCC has significantly limited activity in the T-Band spectrum—even among business-industrial users, which were not even mentioned in the law—until a relocation plan is established. As a result, T-Band users have been left in limbo for years, as there is no clear path forward.
“From a spectrum-management standpoint, it’s unfinished business,” Mark Crosby, president and CEO of the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA), said yesterday during a session at IWCE 2019. “The band has this black cloud over it. You can’t plan.”
Scott Edson, executive director for the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable System (LA-RICS), said T-Band licensee have be wary when considering changes to their systems.
“Every day that you move forward, you’re incurring potential risks and costs,” Edson said during the panel session.
“One thing we thought about was just moving forward … It’s being paid for by grant dollars right now, but the federal government could come back later and say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have moved forward … You’ve already used grant dollars for T-Band, so we’re not going to pay you more grant dollars to get off of T-Band.’”
Although operating in the T-Band today is frustrating, Crosby said licensees typically should not consider a move from the spectrum until it is required by the federal government.
Historically, spectrum relocations only are executed when the licensee can be provided with “comparable facilities” in another band—and all relocation costs are funded. If a licensee proactively moves an LMR system out of the T-Band today, the licensee would have to pay all of the costs.
“If you move early, you’re not going to get a nickel for moving,” Crosby said. “Why would you do this?”
Presumably, the funds to pay T-Band relocation costs would come from proceeds generated from the auction of T-Band spectrum—something that was valued at $10 billion by federal budget officials when the law was passed in 2012. Many industry experts questioned this valuation estimate at the time, noting the incumbency issues and the fact that T-Band spectrum would not be available for use in a contiguous swath across the country.
Making the $10 billion target figure even more daunting is the fact that the market for spectrum has changed drastically since the law was passed in 2012. All nationwide carriers now have substantial low-band spectrum today and are concentrating on securing vast swaths of millimeter-wave and mid-band spectrum that is more suitable for ultra-dense 5G networks, so it questionable whether a T-Band auction could generate much revenue, unless new players emerge at auction.
With this budgetary consideration in mind, many federal lawmakers are seeking other spectrum in return for letting LMR systems remain on T-Band spectrum, with the 4.9 GHz spectrum that is dedicated to public safety being the alternative that is mentioned most. If a “give back” is needed, public safety should resist a $10 billion target, according to Alan Tilles, an attorney at Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy and Ecker who represents many LMR licensees.
“Let them try to figure out what this is worth,” Tilles said. “I think, if we have to give back something, it should be truly something of equal value, not their perceived equal value. It ain’t worth $10 billion.”
In fact, users might benefit from having the FCC proceed with the mandated attempt an auction of T-Band spectrum, Tilles said. It is likely that the auction would not generate enough revenue to fund the relocation of existing system, which would remove uncertainty for T-Band licensees. If the auction succeeds, existing users would have their relocations funded, although finding comparable alternative spectrum in such markets appears to be virtually impossible.
“That is a strategy—just let them [FCC officials] go ahead and follow the act,” Crosby said. “It will be a car wreck—a train wreck, actually. Public safety isn’t going to go anywhere in those cities—there’s no place to move them at this point, and there won’t be enough money [from a prospective auction] to go, anyway.”
Given the certainty that an auction would provide, Edson said that the “worst-case” scenario for T-Band licensees would be to have the status quo extended for another decade. Crosby agreed.