Out of Tune
The symptoms were easy to describe: commercial wireless signals were bleeding into public safety radio systems. The prescription, ordered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2004, was to reconfigure the 800 megahertz (MHz) band that was being contorted. The fly in the ointment — the plan’s three-year timetable, which ends next month — has proven to be gravely miscalculated because of massive misjudgments on the project’s key aspects. As a result, the very little progress that has been made to date has placed the reconfiguration and its participants in jeopardy.
In fact, more than 40 percent of the 900 public safety licensees that need to be rebanded have yet to sign a contract, according to a report to the FCC in April from Sprint Nextel, the company responsible for the rebanding project. Less than 20 percent of the 900 licensees have a scheduled date for completing their work, and 300 of the public safety licensees that originally were scheduled to finish rebanding several months ago will not finish by the June 27 deadline. Even worse, “nearly half of those licensees have not completed their planning or are not yet in a position to even begin to negotiate their [rebanding agreements],” the report said.
The notion that rebanding could be finished in three years and cost less than $2.8 billion now seems ludicrous, as the most optimistic projections are that the massive engineering project will not be completed until at least 2012 at a cost that could exceed original projections by billions of dollars. Meanwhile, as federal officials bemoan the lack of communications interoperability between the nation’s first responders, Sprint Nextel is in court asking for more time, and public safety agencies are somehow muddling through.
The radio interference began when the FCC allowed Nextel Communications to operate on a spectrum that interleaved with the 800 MHz airwaves used most by the nation’s largest public safety organizations. FCC’s 2004 order to correct the problem required Nextel to fund all costs of reconfiguring the 800 MHz and portions of the 1.9 gigahertz (GHz) spectrum bands, in addition to contributing spectrum to public safety. In return, Nextel would receive 10 MHz of 1.9 GHz and contiguous spectrum. The FCC appointed a group, the Transition Administrator, to oversee the work and started the timer on the three-year project in 2005.
When the FCC passed the order, many public safety officials said there was too much work to be done and too few qualified people to do it so quickly. In fact, the time it has taken Sprint Nextel and public safety licensees to agree on rebanding deals has dramatically exceeded the original timetable.
There are a myriad of explanations for the slow pace. Public safety licensees have claimed Sprint Nextel has required an unusual amount of detail in the planning phases and regularly challenged cost estimates. Sprint Nextel claims that some public safety licensees are not questioning quotes from consultants and other vendors because the licensees are not paying for the work. And, both sides have voiced frustration about the inability of the FCC and the Transition Administrator to quickly rule on disputed points of negotiations.
Some of the problems can be traced to older 800 MHz public safety networks whose replacement parts for rebanding cannot be found. That has led to disagreements concerning the work that is needed to meet the FCC’s standard that old equipment be replaced with “comparable facilities.” In addition, public safety radio systems can never be taken off the air while changes are made — an alternative that can be exercised with most commercial wireless networks to speed progress. “It’s like trying to change the wings on a plane while it’s in flight,” says Steve Proctor, executive director for the Utah Communications Agency Network.
While such disagreements and technical problems may justify blowing through the deadline, many third-party observers say that because such a large-scale rebanding of public safety systems is unprecedented, the agency did not know how to calculate the project’s lifespan in the first place.
A not-so-simple task
With a flurry of rulings last year, the FCC generally cleared its backlog of rebanding disputes affecting a large number of public safety licensees, allowing the pace of negotiations to proceed more quickly. In regions where at least 70 percent of the public safety licensees have finalized rebanding agreements with Sprint Nextel, the Transition Administrator is conducting implementation planning sessions designed to identify potential logistical problems and outline timetables to reband each public safety network in the area.
Existing interoperability agreements have made rebanding much more complex. Instead of simply coordinating the retuning of their own systems — a challenging proposition on its own — public safety representatives must ensure that their interoperability and mutual-aid obligations with neighbors can be maintained throughout the transition. “[Implementation planning sessions are] very boring, but they may be the most useful meetings that these folks have,” says Alan Tilles, a partner in Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker, attorneys who represent several public safety entities affected by rebanding. “It’s interesting, because it’s almost as if you can see light bulbs go on in people’s minds when they realize the interdependencies these systems have with one another.”
In a few cases involving smaller systems, rebanding is complete, and public safety agencies are operating on their new frequencies in the 800 MHz band. Large state systems in Utah and Colorado are expected to finish rebanding late this year or in 2009.
Other systems will be finished later — potentially much later. Many observers say California’s 800 MHz radio system likely will not reband completely until 2011. Not only is the size and complexity of the system a problem, California cannot begin retuning in the southern tip of the state until the United States and Mexico reach a treaty agreement that designates using 800 MHz along the border.
A similar situation exists on the U.S.-Canada border, but a plan has been approved and rebanding work should begin soon in the northern U.S. 800 MHz systems. However, a U.S.-Mexico agreement is a greater technical challenge, and no tangible plan has emerged.
Meanwhile, those public safety entities currently rebanding their radio systems are uncovering operational issues. Some are expected delays involving weather issues or emergencies. Typically, they result in change orders, with the licensee and the vendor reaching a financial arrangement to compensate the vendor for additional work — deals that sometimes are performed informally so the project does not have to stop. But, in rebanding without Sprint Nextel’s approval, any change to the scope of work may not get paid by the carrier, meaning the public safety licensee must pay the bill or the vendor will not be paid.
Sprint Nextel’s desire to approve changes may be because rebanding is much more costly than expected. When Nextel agreed to pay a minimum of $2.8 billion for rebanding, some company representatives privately said they expected that amount to cover all rebanding costs and leave about $1 billion in the U.S. Treasury. Now, it is almost certain that no money will be put into the treasury coffers. In its most recent 10-K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Sprint Nextel projected its rebanding costs to be between $2.7 billion and $3.4 billion.
FCC’s ruling last fall requires Sprint Nextel to vacate its 800 MHz spectrum on June 27, 2008, the original completion deadline for rebanding. Sprint Nextel has appealed the decision in a federal appeals court, noting that it agreed to give up the spectrum only after rebanding is finished.
If Sprint Nextel loses the case and must vacate its 800 MHz spectrum, it loses the foundation of its iDEN network that supports the Nextel Direct Connect service (push-to-talk) that is popular among city and county governments. Also, Sprint Nextel’s rebanding costs will increase by at least an additional $1 billion to $2.8 billion, according to industry analysts.
A Sprint Nextel loss in the case also could have cities and counties reexamining their contracts with the company. Direct Connect remains the industry leader in push-to-talk communications, but any wireless network would be less effective if it does not have enough spectrum to support its operations.
While industry observers have speculated that Sprint Nextel could try to purchase access to the 900 MHz spectrum and move its iDEN network if it has to vacate its 800 MHz spectrum, the carrier has not told customers of its contingency plans and how quickly it could make such a transition. “There is a great deal of concern in the loss of capacity in iDEN and the possibility of our iDEN networks not working,” says Charles Werner, fire chief for Charlottesville, Va.
Charlottesville uses the iDEN services as a “parallel network” that enables administrative interoperability between multiple jurisdictions and departments while offloading traffic from the mission-critical 800 MHz network. Werner says the 800 MHz network could handle the additional traffic from a potential iDEN network stoppage but says that may not be the case with metropolitan networks that already are operating close to capacity.
The issue is one that all enterprises — cities, counties, businesses and even those that do not operate an 800 MHz network — will need to monitor closely if the appeals court rules against Sprint Nextel. “I think we’re all hoping for the better that it will not have a negative impact,” Werner says. “I’m sure that would be on the minds of people who are looking to renew; They might want to extend the contract temporarily until [the case is finalized]. There’s not many things that compare with the functionality of the iDEN network in terms of delay, capacity and talk groups, so it’s not easy to jump off ship to go with something else.”
Donny Jackson is the senior writer for Mobile Radio Technology, American City & County’s sister publication.