Tuesday, August 7, 2007

FCC to Sprint/Nextel - Get The Job Done Or......

The Nextel interference debacle just keeps dragging on and on and on.....

Here's a report on the latest developments courtesy of the 08/07/07 Wall Street Journal:

• The Warning: The FCC is pushing Sprint Nextel Corp. to put an end to the disruption that its wireless system causes in emergency radio communications because its broadcast spectrum is interwoven with one used by police and firefighters.

• The Deal: The company agreed in 2004 to pay to move its service and public-safety agencies to separate channels, and was awarded 10 megahertz of coveted spectrum as an incentive.

• What's Next: With political pressure rising, the FCC says it may dictate a solution if the company doesn't pick up the pace.

(For more background and insight on this almost 10 year old and still unresolved problem, do a Google search using "800 mhz" "nextel" "rebanding" and "public safety" as the search words or, read over 3000 other entries from the industry available on the FCC's electronic comment site - enter "02-55" in the "Proceedings" field, then click "Retrieve Document List" at bottom of form)

Clearing Emergency Radio Waves
FCC Presses Sprint on Cellphone
Static Hindering Police Spectrum

August 7, 2007
Page A4 - The Wall Street Journal 08/07/07

Public-safety officials have been complaining for years about static from cellphones that disrupts emergency radio communications. Now the Federal Communications Commission is stepping up the pressure on Sprint Nextel Corp., the company whose signals are causing the most interference, to address the problem.

With talk of a renewed threat of a terrorist attack, the middle of the hurricane season approaching and the Minneapolis bridge collapse, some lawmakers are urging the FCC to take more control of the process. "The FCC needs to ensure that our police, firefighters and other first responders can use the spectrum without interference," says Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.). "Communication on these frequencies is essential for public safety."

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin warns that he wants to see progress soon, or the FCC will dictate a remedy
. Sprint Nextel concedes it is taking longer than anticipated to solve the problem and attributes the delay to its efforts to do it as economically as possible.

The static is more than a nuisance. In Pennsylvania's Upper Uwchlan Township, police officers handling accidents on busy Route 100 regularly lose contact with dispatchers. Chief John De Marco says interference cut off a call he made during a traffic stop involving a fugitive; another time it happened when he was responding to a bank alarm. School-bus drivers, prison systems and utility workers have had calls interrupted by cellphone interference.

The problem has been intensifying with growing use of Sprint Nextel's network, the Nextel portion of which was created using a slice of the airwaves interwoven with the one used for emergency communications. Interference wasn't much of a problem when the spectrum was used as originally designated -- by construction crews, taxi drivers and other workers who needed souped-up walkie-talkies for short conversations.

In 2004, as use of Nextel service grew and static more frequently interrupted public-safety communications, the company, the FCC and safety groups agreed on a solution: Nextel would pay to move its service and public-safety agencies to separate channels. As an incentive, the FCC would give the company an additional 10 megahertz of coveted spectrum.

The company began negotiating with local public-safety agencies about the exact network upgrades they needed and how much the company would pay for them. The following year, Sprint Corp. acquired Nextel Communications Inc., making it necessary to mesh those two networks as well.

From the beginning, Sen. Lautenberg has questioned the legality of the deal. He says he remains concerned about the protracted process, in which hundreds of separate negotiations have ended up in mediation.

The fix was never expected to be easy or inexpensive. As part of its 2004 agreement with the FCC, Nextel promised to pay at least $4.86 billion - (
up from Nextel's original offer of $800 million) - and complete the job in three years. But many of the negotiations between Sprint Nextel and local authorities have landed in protracted mediation while interference has continued. (So far, with only 11 months left to go in the 36 month time-frame mandated by the FCC, the majority of Public Safety systems throughout the U.S. have yet to complete the process and, the interference continues, pretty much unabated)

"There's no way we're going to meet the 36-month end date, and there's very little sense of how much this could ultimately cost," says Robert Gurss, a lawyer with Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth PLC and director of legal and government affairs for the Association of Public-Safety
Communications Officials International.

While switching channels might sound easy, it isn't. Wireless-network equipment used by thousands of public-service agencies across the country needs to be modified, as does every mobile phone or other radio device the agencies use. As a measure of how much ground still
must be covered, Motorola Inc., a provider of equipment to the public-safety community, estimates it has shipped only 1% of the new phones and other equipment needed to complete the overhaul.

Ed Atkins, director of emergency services for Chester County, Pa., which includes Upper Uwchlan, has been negotiating for three yearswith Sprint to pin down the cost of preliminary studies to upgrade the police, fire and ambulance communications. He puts the initial costs
at about $650,000, substantially more than Sprint's $400,000 offer.

Mr. Atkins sees the price of the entire conversion ranging from as little as $18.5 million to as much as $150 million, depending on how many radios need replacing and how much of the county's communications infrastructure needs to be overhauled. "I was told we were going to
have our costs for this exercise covered," Mr. Atkins says. "I believe what people tell me: They say they are going to pay me. I believe they are going to pay me. It's very frustrating."

Sprint Nextel says by the end of this year, it will have spent about $1.5 billion. It acknowledges it has taken a tough stand in negotiations with public-safety officials, but cites that the original
agreement specified that it spend at least $4.86 billion. If the full project costs less, the difference goes to the Treasury; if it costs more, the Reston, Va., company is responsible for the costs.

"Every dollar we spend is a dollar that doesn't go to the U.S. Treasury," says Lawrence Krevor, Sprint's senior vice president, government affairs. "We don't have a lot of discretion. In fact, we
have very little discretion as to how we act here."

Some competitors may have been less than happy with the FCC's agreement to hand over coveted spectrum to Sprint. AT&T Inc. filed a complaint with the FCC in April in which it urged the agency to consider taking enforcement action, including possibly taking back the spectrum. The company says every time there is an incident of interference in areas in which it operates, it has to ensure it is not its signal which is causing the disruption, incurring costs in the process.

The FCC said Sprint should focus on getting the job done, not saving money for the Treasury. That statement "was a reflection of the commission's frustration with the current pace and a desire to motivate all the parties so that we really move forward in an expeditious manner," Mr. Martin says.

All sides acknowledge they hadn't anticipated just how difficult making changes would be. Public-safety networks, unlike commercial networks, can't be taken offline for repairs. "People's lives are hanging on this," said Steve Proctor, executive director of the Utah Communications Agency Network, which is supervising the channel switch in his state. "You're having to redesign and rebuild the airplane while it's still flying."

Write to Corey Boles at corey.boles @ dowjones.com

Better yet, write or contact your congressman, senator, local or state public safety agency and the FCC to voice your concerns about this serious life-safety issue today.


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