Transition Administrator notifies FCC of 800 MHz rebanding completion
Almost 17 years after the FCC called for the reconfiguration of 800 MHz spectrum—known as 800 MHz rebanding—the massive program of retuning more than 2,100 radio systems should be done in June, the 800 MHz Transition Administrator (TA) recently stated in its notice of program completion filed recently with the FCC.
“The TA has determined that all of the 800 MHz incumbent licensees in 2,169 reconfiguration agreements—except for the City of El Paso, Texas, and License Acquisitions—that were subject to reconfiguration have relocated to their post-reconfiguration frequencies and modified their licenses to delete their pre-reconfiguration frequencies or canceled their licenses,” the TA states in its filing with the FCC.
“In addition, except for a single licensee, License Acquisitions, all licensees have completed their physical reconfiguration activities, and all but two licensees (the City of El Paso and License Acquisitions) have submitted a completion certification or have been deemed by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (“PSHSB”) to have completed rebanding.”
With the City of El Paso completing its infrastructure reconfiguration on Feb. 25, all 800 MHz public-safety systems have finished the physical-retuning aspect of rebanding, according to the TA filing. Acceptance of the system and associated administrative work for the El Paso system is expected be done in early June, “which is three months ahead of the schedule” in the city’s rebanding contract, the TA filing states.
License Acquisitions is the only incumbent 800 MHz licensee that still needs to complete the rebanding process. As part of its license-renewal application in May 2011, License Acquisitions asked the FCC to waive its requirement to offer ESMR service by the end of the license term and its obligation to complete the rebanding process. Almost 10 years later, the License Acquisitions matter is still pending before the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, according to the TA.
“In accordance with guidance from the PSHSB that in declaring a NPSPAC region complete the TA need not take notice of dormant licenses held by License Acquisitions in the non-ESMR portion of the 800 MHz band, the TA certified that band reconfiguration is complete in NPSPAC Regions 4, 34, 40, 49, 52, and 53, where License Acquisitions held such licenses,” the TA notice states.
Filed with the TA early this month, this TA notice marks the near-conclusion to a process started in the late 1990s, when users of public-safety land-mobile-radio (LMR) systems began noticing interference from cellular networks. The vast majority of this interference came from Nextel Communications, which operated on spectrum interleaved with public-safety airwaves in the 800 MHz.
Many key players in the 800 rebanding effort expressed relief that the process that was expected to be finished more than a decade ago is finally being deemed as complete.
“It’s been a long haul, over 20 years,” Harlin McEwen, a longtime public-safety-communications user and advocate, said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “I remember being there when the FCC took action to move the process forward and was engaged in many, many meetings and discussions over the ensuing years to get this done, … so I’m really glad that it’s now with.”
Alan Tilles, a lawyer who represented many licensees during the rebanding effort, echoed this sentiment.
“We are delighted that a process that we started back in the early 2000s has finally come to an end,” Tilles said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “It has taken far longer as was far more difficult than it should have been.”
In an effort to resolve the 800 MHz interference issues, officials for Nextel and public safety agreed in the early 2000s on the structure of a “consensus plan” that would consolidate all of the Nextel spectrum and consolidate the airwaves supporting the land-mobile-radio (LMR) systems used by public-safety and enterprise licensees.
The FCC adopted most of the key tenets of this plan in the summer of 2004, but its 800 MHz rebanding plan called for Nextel to pay all costs associated with the spectrum-reconfiguration effort, whereas the “consensus plan” would have capped Nextel’s financial obligation at less than $1 billion. Rebanding has cost more than $3.6 billion, according to multiple financial reports.
Sprint paid for virtually all of the 800 MHz rebanding work, after announcing its merger with Nextel in December 2004—months after the FCC issued its rebanding order. Sprint merged with T-Mobile in a deal that closed in April 2020, when almost all rebanding payments had been made.
In January 2005, officials for the newly formed TA unveiled a three-year schedule to reconfigure the 800 MHz band that called for most of the project to be completed in the summer of 2008—a timetable that was met with skepticism by many in the public-safety community at the time. The schedule for LMR systems located near the U.S.-Mexico border was unknown in 2005, because there was no visibility about how long it would take to reach a treaty agreement with Mexico on the matter, which ultimately delayed work for years.
While many of the non-border business/industrial licensees were able to complete their rebanding efforts fairly close to dates outlined in the TA schedule, things did not proceed as smoothly with public-safety licensees.
Unlike many businesses that can schedule downtime to complete such work, public-safety systems had to remain operational throughout the rebanding effort, which complicated technical work. In addition, work on public-safety systems typically require the approval of government entities—in some cases, multiple government entities—which often added time and expense to the process.
Meanwhile, some 800 rebanding negotiations between public-safety licensees and Sprint became lengthy and contentious, with the tactics of virtually all involved parties—Sprint, the TA, the FCC and licensees, as well as the lawyers and consultants representing them—being criticized at one time or another. As rebanding proceeded, many questioned the incentives surrounding negotiations, noting that several parties involved could benefit more financially and strategically by delaying the process than by resolving conflicts.