Your Guide to the UHF T-Band Giveback
March 14, 2012
By Andrew M. Seybold
First and foremost: Don’t panic! The spectrum giveback of the UHF T-band frequencies is the downside of the law reallocating the D block to public safety, providing $7 billion in network buildout funding and detailing a nationwide governance organization. This part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 requires the giveback of the T-band spectrum (470 – 512 MHz) that is occupied primarily by TV channels 14 – 20 and is used by public safety and business/industry users on a shared basis. While it’s shared, this spectrum has provided relief in 13 metropolitan areas with additional narrowband voice communications systems.
The bill gives those who now use the T-band up to nine years to plan the move to other spectrum and then two more years to implement the plan. The bill doesn’t state what existing public-safety spectrum T-band licensees will have to move to, though funding will be available to assist with the relocation. This funding will come toward the end of the nine years from the auction of this spectrum.
Why Did the Giveback Happen?
The public-safety community fought hard to not have to give back any spectrum during the negotiations during the past two-plus years. However, at the 11th hour, some members of Congress added the requirement that public safety give back some spectrum as a condition to receiving the D block and funding.
The public-safety community had no choice but to agree to this spectrum giveback for the good of the entire public-safety community and to ensure that the nationwide public-safety broadband system would have sufficient spectrum and funding.
During the past several years, various members of Congress suggested that public safety would have to return some spectrum. At first lawmakers were looking at all spectrum between 150 and 512 MHz. Public-safety communications leaders convinced Congress that this was not feasible, nor was Congress’ next suggestion of giving back spectrum in the 420 – 470 MHz band. Before Congress settled on the T-band, lawmakers also proposed that public safety give back its 700 MHz narrowband spectrum.
None of these options was viable, and as much as public safety tried to stay the course, those within Congress who insisted on a spectrum giveback settled on the T-band. It was not offered by public safety, and at no time did the public-safety community agree to this giveback. However, the spectrum return is in the bill, and public safety as a community will have to look at all of the options available.
Who Is Impacted?
The answer is any public-safety agency that is using the 470 – 512 MHz frequency band in or around the following cities: Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Washington.
There are a total of 808 issued licenses in these cities, and 34 licenses are pending approval.
What Are Your Options?
Nothing in the law requires those using the T-band to migrate to 700 MHz narrowband. However, with all of the new 700 MHz systems — many regional networks — being built, if spectrum is available, 700 MHz is the most logical choice. Building on 700 MHz will probably require more infrastructure for the same amount of coverage as a T-band system; the average increase should be in the range of 20 – 30 percent.
Following are some recommendations for next moves based on specific scenarios:
If your T-band system is old and needs replacement in the near term — meaning it has not yet been narrowbanded — determine whether 700 MHz narrowband channels are available in your area. If there are, build the new system on 700 MHz instead of replacing your existing T-band equipment. Do the buildout and accept the new system prior to moving your T-band users to the new system.
If there are no new 700 MHz channels available, wait for the narrowbanding deadline of Jan. 1, 2013, and search for channels in the 150 – 170 MHz or 450 – 470 MHz bands. Most, if not all, T-band mobile and handheld equipment can be reprogramed to operate in the 450 – 470 MHz band, and therefore, could be reused. You can also look for available 800 MHz narrowband channels or wait until 2016 and apply for the new 700 MHz narrowband channels. There is time, so you don’t need to be in a hurry.
If your T-band system has already been narrowbanded and/or the equipment is new, I suggest two options. One is to review what other narrowband channel options you have on 150, 450, 700 and 800 MHz bands. And review them again after the narrowband deadline passes. Consider building an overlay 700 MHz narrowband system during the next five to seven years. This will enhance voice interoperability and make the transition easier when it is required.
If you are in the process of replacing your existing T-band system with an upgraded one, as many areas are, I would advise that you continue on that path because the proposed funding to move T-band systems to other portions of the spectrum won’t be available until the T-band spectrum (or TV channels vacated by T-band LMR users) is auctioned. There also could be some changes in the law. For example, the funding could be made available sooner, or other lawmaker actions could help soften or mitigate the impact of the current law.
Another suggestion is to watch developments of the Long Term Evolution (LTE) nationwide broadband network and the introduction of push to talk (PTT) over broadband as the network is developed during the next four to six years. It’s possible that during this time, mission-critical on-network PTT on the public-safety broadband network will be proven to work and be effective. However, please note that I said on-network as opposed to off-network, normally referred to as talk-around, simplex or tactical channels. There is no guarantee that off-network voice will be supported over LTE. Some of the research and development (R&D) funds set aside by this bill will likely be used to work on this issue. For additional information, see the article on voice over LTE (VoLTE) here
The public-safety community, led by the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) and Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, is working to find answers to several questions, including funding availability and whether T-band systems will be exempt from the 2013 deadline for VHF and UHF narrowbanding. In reality, it will be some time before we have a reaction or direction from the FCC on this issue. The best course of action is to wait until we have answers to these questions.
Many of those affected by the T-band giveback are upset, and rightly so. Having to give back any spectrum, especially when it is heavily used, makes everyone’s job more difficult. However, there is time to watch, listen and plan for the future. Things change, and those in Washington now believe that broadband, and only broadband, holds our communications future. Remember, they are not experts in what we do, and many of them grew up with cell phones, so that is all they know.
Don’t panic, but don’t let nine years speed by without staying on top of the situation. As we all know, that has happened to a number of agencies that waited to narrowband. Don’t let yourself be caught in a crunch.
Andrew M. Seybold is CEO and principal analyst of Andrew Seybold Inc., a wireless industry consulting firm. Seybold, who has more than 25 years of experience, is vice chair of the APCO Broadband Committee.
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