Questions and Answers about the FCC's 800 MHz Decision
The following questions and answers are based on the text of the FCC's Report and Order in Docket 02-55, released in August 2004.
Q: What did the FCC do, and why?
A: The FCC adopted a plan to reconfigure ("re-band") the 800 MHz band (806-824/851-869 MHz) to prevent serious interference to public safety radio communications. The plan segregates frequencies used by public safety from those used by Nextel and other cellular companies that have been the source of the interference. While the FCC adopted most of the key elements of the Consensus Plan, the FCC's order departs from the Plan in several important respects (in most cases to the benefit of public safety licensees).
Q: Where can I find a copy of the FCC's decision?
A: The 256-page document in WT Docket 02-55, is available on the FCC's webpage at:http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-04-168A1.pdf or http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-04-168A1.doc
Q: Who will pay for this "re-banding?
A: Nextel is required to pay the full amount. Public safety licensees can insist that all expenses are paid directly (in other words, there is no requirement that agencies spend funds "up-front" and then seek reimbursement). More information regarding the payment mechanism can be found below.
Q: Is there a limit on how much Nextel must spend to complete the rebanding?
A: No, the FCC required Nextel to pay the full amount. Total costs have been estimated to be $850 million. However, Nextel is required to secure $2.5 billion through an irrevocable letter of credit from a major bank. A trustee will be established to draw down those funds to pay the costs of re-banding, and Nextel must secure additional funds in the event that $2.5 billion proves to be insufficient.
Q: Do all public safety licensees in 800 MHz need to re-band and switch frequencies?
A: No. Licensees operating only on public safety channels in 809-816/854-861 MHz (the so-called "70 slow growth channels" or "interleaved channels") are not required to make any changes. However, those in the "upper" portion of those channels (814-816/859-861 MHz) have the option of moving to lower channels to provide greater protection from interference from Nextel's operations just above 816/861 MHz. Licensees with a mix of 809-816/854-861 MHz and other 800 MHz band channels (e.g., 806-809 MHz or NPSPAC channels) will only need to re-tune those other channels.
Q: Which public safety licensees do need to switch frequencies?
A: There are two groups of public safety licensees that need to switch frequencies. First, those operating in "General Category" channels at 806-809/851-854 MHz (sometimes referred to as channels 1-120) will be swapping channels with Nextel channels in the 809-814/854-859 MHz range. It appears from the FCC order that a Transition Administrator (see below) will determine the specific channels to be swapped, ensuring comparable channels. The changes will also be subject to frequency coordination. Second , after those moves are completed (and other non-Nextel General Category licensees make similar changes), all of the "NPSPAC" licensees at 821-824/866-869 MHz will move to 806-809/851-854 MHz, swapping channels with Nextel. The NPSPAC channels will move as a "block" so that each licensee retains the same position relative to co-channel and adjacent-channel licensees in the region. The new NPSPAC channels will be exactly 15 MHz lower than current channels. No changes to the regional plans are necessary, though some regional planning committees may take the opportunity to adjust their plans to improve spectrum efficiency.
Q: What about licensees in the Canadian or Mexican border areas?
A: The current 800 MHz channel plan is different in these areas, and a revised plan consistent with international treaties must still be agreed upon. Thus border areas not expected to go through re-tuning until later in the process.
Q: What is involved in making these frequency switches?
A: In most cases, it can be accomplished through "re-tuning" of existing radios, usually by connecting each radio to a laptop and keying in the frequency change. Depending upon the configuration of the radio system, some radios may need to be re-tuned twice to ensure a seamless transition. Certain other system changes may also be needed in some cases. Software re-programming will be needed for some NPSPAC radios. Certain older NPSPAC radios cannot be re-programmed, and will need to be replaced. The Nextel funds will pay for those replacements.
Q: Do I need buy new radios, and if so who pays for that?
A: Most licensees will not need to replace radios. However, some older NPSPAC radios will need to be replaced, the cost of which is covered by the Nextel funds.
Q: Who will do this re-tuning?
A: Licensees have the option of having the re-tuning done by a contractor, or doing it in-house if the licensee has sufficient internal resources. Either way, the costs will be paid from the Nextel funds, either directly to the contractor or to the licensee. Contractors will be selected through the negotiation process discussed below.
Q: Who administers the re-banding process?
A: The FCC will designate an independent Transition Administrator (TA) this fall. The TA will be selected by a search committee consisting of representatives from APCO, Industrial Telecommunications Association, United Telecom Council, Southern Linc, and Nextel.
Q: What is the role of the Transition Administrator?
A: The Transition Administrator (TA) will establish a re-banding schedule for each NPSPAC Region, possibly identify replacement frequencies for 806-809/851-854 MHz licensees, approve re-tuning agreements, consult with NPSPAC regional committees, and mediate disputes between licensees and Nextel (if mediation does not lead to agreement, the matter is referred to the FCC for resolution).
Q: What is the timing of this process?
A: Thirty (30) days after the FCC approves the Transition Administrator (TA) selection (sometime this fall), the TA must submit a proposed schedule to the FCC. The schedule will establish re-banding commencement dates for each NPSPAC region. The regions with the largest population will go first, though the TA can accelerate the schedule for regions with significant interference problems. The overall schedule for the nation must provide for commencement of re-banding for all regions within 30 months. The schedule must also provide for at least 20 regions to have at least their 806-809/851-854 MHz channels retuned within 18 months. The entire process is to be completed within 36 months (though that could be extended for reasons beyond Nextel's control, especially for border areas). The FCC must approve the TA's proposed schedule.
Q: How will the re-banding process for each licensee be determined?
A: There will be a period of negotiation between Nextel and individual licensees to develop agreements covering all aspects of the re-banding. If no agreement is reached, the TA will mediate and, if necessary, the FCC will resolve disputes. Licensees have the option of submitting re-banding cost estimates to the Transition Administrator, who will forward the estimates to Nextel for approval or counter-proposals. This option is intended for licensees that would prefer not to negotiate face-to-face with Nextel.
Q: What is the negotiation schedule?
A: The FCC will issue Public Notices of the commencement date for each region, based upon the TA's proposed schedule. A three-month voluntary negotiation period will begin 30 days prior to the commencement date. During this time, licensees and Nextel will be able to negotiate agreements face-to-face covering all aspects of the re-tuning of the licensee's system, or they may exchange proposals through the TA. If no agreement is reached at the end of the three-month voluntary negotiation period, a three-month mandatory negotiation period will begin. During the mandatory negotiation period the parties are required to negotiate in "good faith" and exchange necessary information. The TA has authority to schedule mandatory settlement negotiations and mediation sessions. If no agreement is reached within thirty days after the end of the mandatory negotiation period, the TA will forward the matter to the FCC to conduct a full review and rule on disputed issues.
Q: What will be negotiated?
A: The negotiations should lead to a detailed plan for re-tuning the system, identifying who will do the work (contractor or agency personnel), the cost of that work, a schedule of work (including times of day to minimize disruption), and what equipment needs to be replaced and at what cost.
Q: How will Nextel pay for the costs of re-tuning?
A: Each agreement will be logged and approved by the Transition Administrator who will authorize the Trustee of the funds secured by Nextel's Letter of Credit to make payments directly to contractors or the licensee as specified in the negotiated agreement.
Q: Do licensees need to pay for the re-tuning and then get reimbursed?
A: No. The re-banding agreement can specify that all contractor costs are paid directly from the Nextel funds.
Q: Can a licensee agency receive payment to cover the costs of its own personnel directly involved in the re-tuning process?
A: Yes, but the specific costs need to be part of the negotiated agreement.
Q: What if an agency decides it needs engineering consultants or outside legal counsel to help negotiate an agreement with Nextel?
A: While the FCC's order does not specify any of the various costs to be included in the retuning, the process contemplates that reasonable costs related to engineering and legal assistance will be paid for from the Nextel funds. Re-banding agreements should specify reimbursement (or direct payment) of those costs.
Q: Will frequency coordination be needed and who pays for that?
A: Applications to modify licenses with the new frequency will need to be coordinated. All of the coordination costs will be paid for from the secured Nextel funds, either directly or through reimbursement as negotiated.
Q: Can agencies in the midst of implementing a new 800 MHz system obtain extensions of their construction deadline so radios can be deployed with the new channels?
A: Yes. The FCC indicates in the order that it will entertain requests to extend construction deadlines for licensees that have commenced some aspect of system construction but cannot proceed until new channels are specified.
Q: Will there be a "freeze" on new applications?
A: Not yet. However, there will be a freeze on new applications in each NPSPAC region during the period from the Public Notice of the initiation of voluntary negations in that region until 30 days after the end of the mandatory negotiation period for that region. The freeze does not apply to applications for modifications that do not extend the coverage area of existing systems. Waivers of the freeze will also be entertained.
Q: What about interference that occurs before, during or even after the re-tuning process?
A: The FCC adopted "Enhanced Best Practices" which contain stringent new rules to require those causing interference in the 800 MHz band to correct such interference.
Q: Will there be any additional 800 MHz spectrum available as part of the re-tuning?
A: Yes, one of the significant benefits of the FCC's order is that approximately 4.5 MHz of additional 800 MHz band spectrum will become available for new and expanded public safety operations once Nextel vacates all channels below 817/862 MHz and certain other frequency changes are completed.
Q: When will the new channels become available, and does public safety get priority?
A: eligibility for the new channels, followed by two years when eligibility will be shared with "critical infrastructure industry" (CII) licensees. Thereafter, all Part 90 non-cellular entities will be eligible. Clarification and/or modification of the FCC's order may be necessary to ensure that public safety get the full benefit of the three-year and two-year periods.
Q: What does the 1.9 GHz band have to do with all of this?
A: In exchange for Nextel agreeing to reduce its spectrum holdings in the 800 MHz band, giving up spectrum in the 700 MHz guard band, and paying for all of the transition costs, the FCC has assigned new spectrum in the 1.9 GHz band to Nextel. However, to the extent that the value of the spectrum that Nextel gives up and the cost of re-banding is less than the value of the 1.9 GHz band ($4.85 billion), Nextel must pay the balance into the U.S. Treasury.
Q: Is the FCC order "final?"
A: No, Nextel must still agree to the terms of the order. Verizon Wireless has also threatened to challenge the order in court. Some parties may also seek FCC reconsideration, and the Commission is expected to make some revisions on its own, at least to eliminate some inconsistencies in the order.