Spectrum Reconfiguration: Ready, Set, Go!

Sept. 1, 2005

The effort to eliminate 800 MHz public safety radio interference has felt like a race, or, more accurately, a marathon. We've had some distinguished leaders carry the baton on this issue, with plenty of hearty support from the public safety team. But now we need some fresh faces to bring it home. I've never known the fire community to shy away in the face of a challenge and in this case reliable 800 MHz radio communications represents the finish line, a worthy goal that's within striking distance.

We are where we are today because some leaders within the public safety community worked tirelessly across agency, jurisdictional and field lines to do what's best for those on the streets protecting our nation every day. In 1999, when it was first discovered that the interference affecting a lot of first responders' 800 MHz radios was because of the close proximity of public safety channels to those of commercial operators (like cell phones) in the 800 MHz wireless spectrum, our leaders knew that a national issue as complex as this required innovative collaboration. Fire, police and EMS worked hand-in-hand, and partnered with private companies like Nextel Communications to develop and advocate for a comprehensive solution.

In the fire community, it was former International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Government Relations Director Alan Caldwell and former IAFC President Ernie Mitchell who carried the torch during the long and sometimes tumultuous times to get it done for public safety. The fire community is fortunate in that current IAFC President Bob DiPoli shares their steadfast commitment to resolving this issue, putting us in good hands as we enter this next phase. These leaders should be commended for their vision and humility.

Implementation of the public safety-supported plan began on June 27, 2005. And now, the spirit of collaboration that Caldwell and Mitchell established needs to be continued and expanded. To proactively eliminate public safety radio interference, the 800 MHz spectrum needs to be reconfigured, or reorganized, so that the incompatible technologies of public safety and commercial operations are permanently separated. So, some public safety licensees operating in the 806-809 MHz/851-854 MHz band will have to "move" their operations to a different section of the 800 MHz band. What this involves is retuning radio equipment to operate on newly-assigned 800 MHz frequencies.

Here's the good news: not only will this eliminate a growing communications problem, but it will also create some future communications opportunities because public safety will gain additional spectrum. The good news doesn't end there: all reasonable costs incurred by public safety agencies during the implementation of this initiative will be fully covered by Nextel Communications, as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), so this will have zero effect on our already-strained budgets.

The implementation process will take three years from start to finish, with four region-specific "waves" at staggered start-dates. A majority of the initial work will be focused on moving the private wireless licenses out to create "green space" for public safety to transition into, so most public safety involvement won't happen until 2006. The map above depicts the regional waves and when each area will begin the reconfiguration process, but if you want to get detailed information, visit the website of the 800 MHz Transition Administrator (TA), the FCC-appointed entity in charge of overseeing the reconfiguration process (http://www.800ta.org).

What This Means for You

Here are answers to some of the questions I've been hearing in the field:

1. What can my agency expect from this process?
At the beginning of your designated "wave," the TA will get in touch with all those in the region that have to change their channels. If your agency is involved, you will receive comprehensive information about the process and a proposal for new frequency assignment from the TA. You will then hear from Nextel to initiate the negotiation process, which will establish the new frequencies, costs that need to be covered, and schedule to get the retuning work done. Affected licensees operating in 806-809 / 851-854 MHz in Wave 1 should have already been contacted.

2. What should my agency do to prepare for reconfiguration?

  • Ensure the FCC has the correct contact information for your agency
  • Get your FCC licenses in order
  • Take an inventory of all your radio equipment and the make/model of those units (yes, all your radios)
  • Develop a list of what equipment needs to be retuned
  • Develop an estimate of costs
  • Map out a preferred work schedule for retuning
  • Figure out who will do the retuning work
  • Determine who will sign the contract for your organization

3. Is my agency assured that our current coverage will remain the same?
Yes. The FCC made express provisions to ensure all retuning licensees are provided with the same operational capability that it had prior to reconfiguration. This means that licenses are guaranteed comparable channel capacity, signaling capability, geographic coverage and operating costs.

4. Does my agency need to front the costs of retuning and then get reimbursed?
No. In your negotiation process, you can request that all contractor costs are paid directly by Nextel so that no money needs to come out of your agency's pocket.

5. Can agencies in the midst of implementing a new 800 MHz system receive extensions of their construction deadline so radios can be deployed with the new channels?
Yes. The FCC has indicated that it will entertain extension requests for licensees that have commenced some aspect of system construction but cannot proceed until new channels are specified.

Let's Bring It Home

We have come so far, but we're not quite there yet! Though 2006 may seem like a long time before we get started with actual reconfiguration, we need to keep our eyes on that "finish line." Public safety has been given a tremendous opportunity to move toward interference-free communications on our 800 MHz radios. As we know, communications are our life-blood and seconds can mean everything, so to have better tools to do our jobs more effectively is vital.

Tell your fellow public safety officers about this important issue, take the necessary steps to ensure you know what (if anything) is expected of your agency, stay updated on the issue (my column will hopefully help with this aspect) and ask questions. The public safety community, and the communities we proudly serve, will reap the benefits for years to come.

Charles Werner, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and is 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.

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