Making Room For Public Safety

Congress wants some answers from Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
Commission Chairman Michael Powell over the agency’s proposed plan to displace
licensed 800 MHz carriers, and is giving the telecom agency chief until
July 26 to provide an answer.

Public safety agencies (like firefighter and police agencies) and cell
phone carriers (mainly Nextel Communications , one
of the largest digital wireless phone carriers in the U.S.), share parts of
the band — carriers, with their high-power transmitters and amplifiers,
usually win, interfering with emergency communications.

Although the FCC already has a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to move
licensed operators out of the contested spectrum next year, Congress is
looking for a solution now.

The letter, sent by Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), Fred Upton (R-MI) and Vito
Fossella (R-NY) of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the
Internet on Monday, asks for a “detailed accounting” of 800 MHz band
operators and the frequency allotments each possess.

“With the increase in commercial mobile radio service (CMRS) and
specialized mobile radio (SMR) providers and the implementation of new
technologies and services, interference has become increasingly common in
the 800 MHz band. Many of our colleagues in Congress believe that the
interference presents a very serious problem that needs to be addressed in
a timely manner.”

The problem, all sides agree, is that the two are interfering with each
other, causing emergencies crews to lose radio contact at critical times
and giving customers dropped signals. The spectrum in question is 70
channels in the 810-816 MHz and 854-861 MHz bands.

The answer, however, isn’t as easy, and the FCC’s March, 2002, NPRM
is looking for feedback on a proposal to move phone carriers to a different
area of spectrum, eliminating much of the interference problem.

Nextel, which has been working in conjunction with wireless phone maker
Motorola , the Cellular Telephone and Internet Association
(CTIA) and the Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN), released a white
paper in November, 2000, which is the basis of the NPRM.

Kathleen Abernathy, FCC commissioner, said the Nextel proposal is a good
starting point to get discussion moving on the interference issue.

“For almost two years, the Commission staff has been diligently working
with the public safety and commercial wireless communities to come up with
solutions to the 800 MHz interference problem,” she said in a
statement. “Nextel’s proposal is a welcome beginning of a dialog on how
best to move us from where we are — to where we need to be.”

Basically, it shuffles Nextel out of the contested frequencies and puts
them elsewhere in the 700 and 800 MHz bands and gives public safety
agencies and other commercial operators more room in the same. Public
safety organization would get sole use of the 764-776 MHz, 794-816 MHz and
851-861 MHz bands and commercial operators would get the 764-776 MHz,
776-794 MHz and 861-869 MHz bands.

One of the questions wireless phone operators have, though, is who’s going
to foot the bill.

Carriers in the FCC-licensed 800 MHz band pay yearly licensing fees to
continue operating in the spectrum, dependent on the number of customers
and how they specifically use the frequency. Not only that, their
equipment is geared to operate in that particular frequency; moving it to
another frequency — such as the suggested 900 MHz band — would require a
systems-wide overhaul to function in the new “environment.”

Normally, the new agency displacing the incumbent carriers would foot the
bill for the migration costs, but in this case its taxpayer dollars involved.

Nextel has a solution for that, too: a “reward” that benefits the carrier
specifically and gives it room in an area of frequency the FCC has
designated for emerging technologies. Some of the frequencies it lost in
the proposed deal would be gained in the reallocation of 2.1 GHz spectrum,
prime “real estate” for 3G digital wireless communications.

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