FCC closes book on 800 MHz rebanding after almost 17 years
FCC commissioners yesterday voted unanimously to end the 800 MHz rebanding program, bringing a formal end to the almost-17-year initiative that was designed to mitigate much of the interference that some public-safety LMR systems received from the cellular networks now owned by T-Mobile, after the carrier merged with Sprint.
“I am pleased to say that the rebanding program has fully achieved its objective,” Lisa Fowlkes, chief of the FCC’s public-safety and homeland-security bureau, said during the FCC’s virtual meeting. “And rebanding has done more than alleviate interference. It has freed up additional spectrum for public-safety and critical-infrastructure licensees. It has enabled many public-safety licensees to upgrade their systems, and it has enhanced public-safety interoperability.”
Michael Wilhelm—an FCC attorney who has worked on 800 MHz rebanding since its inception and has announced plans to retire later this year—said the FCC order directs the 800 MHz Transition Administrator to take actions necessary to discontinue its operations and that it notes that T-Mobile has fulfilled all of its 800 MHz rebanding obligations. With this in mind, the requirement for T-Mobile to maintain a letter of credit guaranteeing reimbursement to rebanding licensees has been eliminated, he said.
Prior to its merger with T-Mobile, Sprint stated that it spent more than $3.6 billion to pay for implementation of 800 MHz reconfiguration—consolidating public-safety spectrum in the lower part of the band and consolidating commercial-wireless spectrum in the upper part of the band—during the lifetime of the massive engineering project that impacted more than 2,100 systems and more than 2 million radios.
All 800 MHz public-safety licensees have completed the physical rebanding of their systems, according to a report from the 800 MHz Transition Administrator released last month. There is some rebanding work to be done with an enterprise licensee, but Wilhelm noted that the order “concludes that remaining administrative issues that pertain to two licensees can be addressed outside the rebanding programs.”
While 800 MHz rebanding is done, it has not been a quick process. Indeed, the FCC approved the order—originally working with Nextel Communications, before its sale to Sprint—initiating the 800 MHz reconfiguration process in the summer of 2004, and the implementation schedule unveiled by the 800 MHz Transition Administrator called for the work to begin in the summer of 2005 and largely be completed in the summer of 2008.
Several FCC commissioners and FCC staff members referenced the lengthy period needed to complete the 800 MHz rebanding effort, with several noting that 17-year cycle of Brood X cicadas that inundated Washington, D.C., in 2004 is almost complete, so the cicadas are expected to return in a few months.
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel noted that the telecommunications landscape has changed dramatically since that time, citing the dominance of flip phones and the fact that the FCC was in the process of preparing for its first 3G spectrum auctions.
“In 2004, of course, the agency also began vitally important work to prevent interference on public-safety systems from the commercial wireless uses,” Rosenworcel said during the FCC meeting. “That effort, known formally as the 800 MHz rebanding program, is finally coming to an end.
“As a result, public-safety, critical-infrastructure and other 800 MHz licensees can operate in a reconfigured band, free of the interference that plagued first responders mission-critical communications before the FCC began this process. So, as we look to the future of spectrum policy, I’m proud to bring the 800 MHz rebanding chapter to a close.”
Alan Tilles, an attorney a lawyer who represented many licensees throughout the rebanding effort, said that 800 MHz rebanding proved to be effective in mitigating the vast majority of interference in the band, but it did not completely eliminate it. However, with the language in the 2004 order, licensees are much better equipped to address any interference concerns than they previously were, and manufacturers could be much more aggressive in their filtering of unwanted signals from LMR systems, he said.
“Has it [800 MHz rebanding] eliminated interference? No,” Tilles said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “Has it tremendously reduced it? You bet.”