800 MHz Interleaved Channels Could be Available Soon
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Highly sought-after channels that will become available to public-safety entities as part of the 800 MHz rebanding process could be released by the FCC soon.
The 800 MHz reconfiguration process, launched eight years ago, was designed to separate National Public Safety Planning Advisory Committee (NPSPAC) public-safety licensees from commercial wireless carriers — namely Sprint Nextel — within the 800 MHz band to mitigate increasing interference issues. In addition, the process called for interleaved spectrum held by Sprint Nextel and used for capacity during the rebanding process to be returned to the commission in a gradual fashion and made available exclusively to public-safety entities for three years.
However, the process has moved along more slowly than expected, and the channels most in demand have remained tied up while rebanding negotiations and system retuning takes place. But soon, all of Sprint Nextel’s interleaved spectrum in non-border regions should be available for public-safety applicants.
“Nextel was supposed to have vacated all this spectrum in 2008 but has requested and been granted multiple waivers postponing the requirement on a NPSPAC region-by-region basis depending on the progress of rebanding in each region,” said Liz Sachs, regulatory counsel for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA). “The last extension expired on March 31, and Nextel has not requested any further relief. Therefore, the FCC is free to announce the date on which all remaining Nextel interleaved band spectrum in all but the border regions will be available.”
The FCC said the availability of the non-border interleaved channels will be announced in a public notice but did not provide a timeframe for when that will happen.
“I would expect that EWA and other coordinators will be busy once that public notice comes out,” said Sachs, although she noted it could be a few months before the channels are actually released.
That will represent a welcome development for applicants and frequency coordinators that have experienced difficulty completing applications for vacated channels. The FCC established a phased approach by which Sprint Nextel would return its interleaved channels based on the percentage of rebanding that had been completed in each region. In several markets, rebanding moved along quickly, triggering the release of new spectrum. But these markets typically are less populated and have little pent-up demand for the released channels.
In major metropolitan areas and urban centers, there is a large pent-up demand for Sprint Nextel’s vacated channels, but until enough rebanding is completed to trigger the release of those channels, they are unavailable to new applicants.
“The major markets have bigger systems and more interoperability concerns, which creates more complications and slows down the rebanding process,” said Sachs. “There hasn’t been enough rebanding in those areas to trigger the FCC to release more spectrum.”
Farokh Latif, director of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International spectrum management division, said he is seeing progress in some areas while other areas remain mired in the negotiation process. APCO acts as one of three public-safety frequency coordinators representing entities applying for vacated channels.
“We have applications sitting in queue for Stage 1 and Stage 2 that we still have not been able to complete,” said Latif. “Just because the commission shows a channel available within a region, that’s not 100 percent accurate. Once we start running searches, we find there are often business and industrial users still incumbent on the channels. Sprint Nextel is not the only licensee on these channels.
“It really is a complicated process,” said Latif. “We have to constantly check back with the database to see if anything has become available.”
Latif said APCO has only been able to complete frequency coordination work for three or four applicants in the first 20 channels for the congested New York and New Jersey markets.
“I wish it was over,” said Latif. “It has gone on way too long. It was supposed to finish in 36 months. That was eight years ago. I would love to see rebanding over with soon so we can have our spectrum back.”
2012 marks an important milestone for other entities interested in applying for channels returned to the FCC. The returned channels are reserved for three years exclusively for public-safety entities. Following that, critical infrastructure entities have two years to apply for any remaining channels. Once the channels have been available to public-safety and critical infrastructure for five years, the channels are open to all applicants, such as business and industry.
The first 20 channels were released to public-safety applicants in 2009, which means beginning this year, critical infrastructure entities can apply for those channels.
“We have had a lot of interest, but only a couple of clients have been successful at this point,” said Wes Wright, an attorney with Keller and Heckman, which assists applicants with application preparation and works with frequency coordinators. “In some areas where there is interest, the freeze has not been lifted, and some regions are saturated, so nothing is available.”
Keller and Heckman has successfully filed an application for one client for vacated channels, but the firm has been less successful in populated areas.
Whether there will be any channels available once public-safety and critical infrastructure applicants have their chance to apply remains to be seen.
“In key urban areas, public safety and critical infrastructure are likely to license all the frequencies made available before the five years are up,” said Sachs. “There may be a channel here or a channel there, but I don’t expect many opportunities for business and industry applicants to access those channels.”
A recent progress report issued by the 800 MHz Transition Administrator (TA), the group that manages the reconfiguration process, indicated that rebanding progress continues to be made, although different regions are moving through the process at widely variable paces.
The rebanding process includes two stages. The first stage is the clearing of the 806 – 809 MHz/851 – 854 MHz band (channels 1-120). The second stage of the rebanding process is the relocation of NPSPAC channel users onto this spectrum. There are two phases within each stage. The first phase is the planning and negotiation process to reach a frequency reconfiguration agreement (FRA) between the licensee and Sprint Nextel. The second phase is the physical retuning of the radio system.
The year-end 2011 report released March 22 said that 99 percent of all licensees in the program, with the exception of those in the Mexico border region, completed the first phase of rebanding. Physical re-tuning of the networks was complete for 83 percent of all FRAs, except those along the Mexican border, as of Dec. 31, said the organization.
“The main goal of the reconfiguration process — separating public safety and commercial cellular operations — has been achieved for a substantial number of licensees,” said the report.
In the non-border regions, much of the current activity revolves around implementation in Phase 2 of Stage 2. Nearly all non-border Stage 2 licensees have submitted FRAs, and 74 percent of the physical retuning is complete for those FRAs.
In Canadian border regions, all Stage 1 FRAs are complete and submitted, and physical re-tuning is complete for about 80 percent of licensees, said the TA. Stage 2 channels are still largely in the planning and negotiation phase, with 92 percent of FRAs completed by the end of 2011.
“Several key licensees in Michigan and Ohio completed FRA negotiations during the fourth quarter, which will enable those licensees, and licensees whose implementation activities are dependent on them, to proceed with their implementation work,” said the TA report.
About 32 percent of physical re-tuning is complete for Stage 2 licensees along the Canadian border. The TA said it anticipates significant progress in implementation activities with Canadian border licensees this year.
Rebanding along the Mexican border has not yet begun as negotiations for a border region band plan continue between U.S. and Mexican regulatory agencies. The TA is encouraging licensees to begin planning and negotiation while waiting for an agreement by submitting a point of contact form to the TA, identifying vendors and consultants to assist with the reconfiguration, conducting subscriber unit inventory, conducting infrastructure inventory, engaging in non-frequency-specific engineering and implementation planning, and defining their interoperability environment. The TA also recommends licensees submit a request for planning funding (RFPF) to the TA and negotiate a planning funding agreement (PFA) with Sprint Nextel.
David Furth, acting chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said negotiations regarding the Mexican border agreement are advanced and will be a high priority at a meeting in June of the U.S.-Mexico High Level Consultative Commission on Telecommunications.
“That spectrum that public safety needs to use along the Mexican border is primarily allocated to Mexico,” said Furth. “We need that spectrum to be primarily allocated to us and transfer other spectrum to Mexico on a primary basis. It’s complicated and requires Mexico to make moves on their side. The Canada cross-border agreement is more compatible with rebanding, so we were able to start rebanding along the Canadian border earlier.”
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