Solving 800 MHz Radio Interference: A Win for All

Over the past year, I have been a staunch advocate – along with many other public safety organizations and representatives – of a plan to eliminate a serious radio interference problem that has plagued public safety in the 800 MHz frequency band for more than five years.

I have been reporting to you the problems, the proposed solutions and the barriers. Over the past several weeks, the planets have finally come into almost perfect alignment in favor of public safety. Originally, Nextel sought out public safety and drafted the original plan to eliminate this potentially deadly problem. The resolution of this problem has been complex, to say the least. Here’s a “behind the scenes” overview of the major happenings and where we are today:

  • 1999 – Radio interference from commercial radio licensees discovered in cities’ public safety radio systems.

  • 2000 – Discussions and strategies developed to overcome radio interference.

  • 2001 – Nextel files a white paper with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for substantial rebanding of the 800 MHz spectrum. This is supported by a consortium of public safety organizations.

  • 2002 – The FCC releases a Notice of Public Rulemaking (NPRM) to improve public safety radio communications in the 800 MHz spectrum and solicits comments.

  • Public safety organizations – the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA), Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International and others – along with Nextel submit the “Consensus Plan,” a proposal that dramatically realigns the 800 MHz radio spectrum.

  • 2003 – Throughout the year, many more significant reports of public safety radio interference are filed with the FCC. Over 1,000 reports over the United States are now on file.

  • A number of commercial wireless vendors (Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless and others) submit an alternative “Balanced Approach” Plan that references a “best practices” approach that is largely reactive.

  • The Cellular Telephone and Internet Association (CTIA) challenges the Consensus Plan as “legally infirm.”

  • 2004 – John Walsh, host of TV’s “America’s Most Wanted,” supports the Consensus Plan on a segment of “Larry King Live” as the only true solution to radio interference.

  • Public safety representatives from the IAFC, IACP, NSA and APCO hold a press conference at the National Press Club in support of Consensus Plan to discuss the problem and to request an immediate solution. Several large public safety organizations expressed concerns about the Consensus Plan, but supported the rebanding effort after having those concerns addressed.

Throughout 2004, public safety representatives from the aforementioned organizations diligently sent information and met with and educated members of Congress and the FCC. On July 7, the FCC issued one of its finest decisions, which was unanimous, that essentially followed the premise of the Consensus Plan with some significant modifications.

After the FCC Order was released, the CTIA sent a proactive letter to the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) indicating its willingness to expedite the FCC Order to correct radio interference. In addition, commercial wireless vendors continued to resist the Consensus Plan by what FCC Chairman Michael Powell indicated were some of the harshest lobbying that he has ever seen.

Next, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) review the FCC ruling as to the legality of the action taken by the FCC. In an unexpected turn of events, Verizon Wireless also changed its position from opposition to support after some reported legal negotiations with Nextel on other unrelated matters. Lastly, the GAO released its report on the review of the FCC Order for reconfiguring the 800 MHz radio spectrum. According to the GAO report, released on Nov. 8, the plan by the FCC to solve public -safety interference in the 800 MHz did not violate the Antideficiency Act or the Miscellaneous Receipts Act. This essentially resolved the questions raised by Lautenberg and eliminated the last hurdle that stood in the way of moving this rebanding effort forward. In a press release, Lautenberg stated, “I am satisfied with GAO’s decision that the FCC’s Nextel spectrum swap order does not violate federal law.”

What’s next?

The last step to actually see the rebanding begin will be agreement by Nextel. Obviously, Nextel cannot sign on to the FCC Order until it sees the final version that is published in the Federal Registry. As with their continued support of public safety throughout this process, other wireless reporters believe that will be forthcoming.

Here’s what this means for the fire service:

2. If a department is presently licensed and operating in 800 MHz, then it will (by law) be required to have its equipment retuned or replaced (replaced only if retuning is not possible) to operate on the newly assigned 800 MHz frequencies (through Nextel funding).

3. Fire departments and other public safety organizations that are required to reconfigure their equipment will not have to pay upfront. More information will be forthcoming.

4. Those that are required to make these changes may select their own local radio maintenance companies or utilize others that will be made available. All costs must be reasonable.

5. A Transition Manager will be selected by the FCC to oversee and hear any appeals that may arise from the process.

6. This decision also makes an additional 4 MHz of radio spectrum available in the 800 MHz band immediately for public safety. This equates to approximately an additional 40 talk groups.

7. A final resolution to radio interference will soon be underway and will immediately address some of the dire needs of the larger cities that have been plagued by radio interference and lack of radio spectrum.

8. The consolidated support of the wireless community and the GAO review giving the “green light” on the order resolve the larger concern or delay from court challenges.

What should affected departments do?

2. Assign someone to serve as the department’s transition manager/point of contact.

3. Stay abreast of the information that becomes available from the FCC as to the reconfiguration process.

4. Coordinate with other public safety departments and your local government that share your 800 MHz frequencies as to how this should be done – DO IT TOGETHER!

5. Attend classes that will educate your department on the process.

6. Once informed, develop a local community plan for transition.

Why do we have to do this if we are not experiencing radio interference?

Some department representatives have asked me why they should have to make these changes when they are not presently having interference problems. The reason is that as more wireless devices are deployed, the interference problem grows and – dangerously – occurs without warning. That is why this must be corrected for the present, future and with some sense of finality. You also may be experiencing radio interference problems already, but just don’t know it.

In summary, this decision has resulted in a solution that provides a plan to eliminate radio interference once and for all, at no expense to public safety and at no expense to taxpayers, that provides more radio spectrum to public safety along with a list of other proactive non-public safety-related issues.

First, Nextel must be recognized for addressing this problem in a “head-on” fashion and as a partner with public safety. Without the original white paper submission to the FCC and the ensuing development of the Consensus Plan, public safety would not be where it is today on this issue. It is also important to recognize the many members of Congress who supported the Consensus Plan, which gave impetus for its survival.

The leadership of the major public safety organizations must be recognized for one of the most solid public safety grass-roots campaigns ever launched. This effort crossed every turf imaginable with one common goal: to eliminate radio interference. There are a number of people that must be recognized for this achievement and they are Alan Caldwell (IAFC), Harlin McEwen (IACP), and Vinny Stile and Bob Gurss (APCO). If you are a member of any of these organizations, you got more than your money’s worth in dues on this effort alone. It also demonstrates the power of public safety when it works solidly together on an issue and the importance of all public safety members that took an active role to make a difference – you know who you are.

The power of the news media cannot be ignored. Many thanks must go to the reporters, especially those in the wireless media section. So many times, the accurate reporting and journalism kept the playing field even and honest. Without this reporting, public safety would have been at a significant disadvantage.

As we move into the final days, it is also important to extend an olive branch to those organizations, companies and individuals and send thanks for changing their positions to one of support to the FCC Order, which ultimately eliminates unnecessary and dangerous delays that may have otherwise occurred through legal challenges.

Lastly, FCC Chairman Michael Powell and FCC Commissioners Kathleen Abernathy, Michael Copps, Kevin Martin and Jonathan Adelstein must be recognized for a final decision that was unanimous, bipartisan and resulted in a win-win-win decision. Their collective decision will have an everlasting effect on public safety radio communications.

Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and is deputy fire chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Werner serves on a number of local, state and federal interoperability working groups, and is technology chair for the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and chair of the Commonwealth of Virginia First Responder Executive Committee. In addition, he serves on the SAFECOM Executive Committee and Advisory Group.