What started out as one of the biggest wars within the wireless industry nearly two decades ago ended quietly during a virtual meeting on Thursday.

During the FCC’s open meeting, which was held online due to the pandemic, the commission voted unanimously to conclude the 800 MHz band reconfiguration program, one that started in 2004. The program was designed to reduce or eliminate interference in the 800 MHz band – because the FCC had approved the use of commercial services in the band that ended up creating interference for public safety.

For years, it was a source of great debate in the wireless industry, pitting Nextel Communications and Sprint against Verizon and, at the time, Cingular, which later became AT&T. There was talk of Nextel/Sprint getting a big windfall out of the “Consensus Plan” that Nextel was promoting and general name-calling all around.

Those were the days

Back when Nextel was establishing itself in the 1990s, it acquired 800 MHz licenses and received permission to use the band for two-way communications, which was basically a walkie-talkie service that grew popular with a lot of businesses, including those with fleet vehicles, like taxi cab companies. At some point, it was decided that the commercial licensees in the band would need to work with public safety users in the band to mitigate interference, according to Harold Feld, SVP at Washington, D.C.,-based Public Knowledge.

“What happened next is what I refer to as the Exxon Valdez of spectrum policy,” although now it might be called the “Gulf Coast toxic spill of spectrum policy,” he said. The companies, primarily Nextel, started to build up their customer base around the country and interference with public safety users grew. On a small scale, it was relatively easy to try to accommodate but as mobile usage rose and Nextel dramatically expanded, they couldn’t keep up with the pace of interference that was occurring. To make matters worse, the way the FCC’s interference rules work, “we assume that if everybody is operating within the rules, there won’t be any interference,” he said.

Part of the negotiations involved a proposal where Sprint would pay for retuning in exchange for spectrum in another band. “The big issue was a lot of people were complaining that this was going to be a huge windfall for Sprint because they were going to get this spectrum for free and the estimated value of the spectrum was significantly higher than the estimated cost of the rebanding,” he said.

Ultimately, the commission decided to reduce interference by relocating Sprint’s system to the upper range of the 800 MHz band and move public safety licensees to the lower end of the band. Sprint was required to pay for the entire rebanding, which ended up being more than $3 billion.

“I do believe that the public safety community benefited and saw this as a win,” because they received system upgrades and it solved the problem, he said. By the time the Sprint/Nextel merger came along, the public safety community was on board. “I think ultimately it turned out to probably be the best result for them,” he said.

“The funny thing is… everybody thought that this was going to be a huge windfall for Sprint, and it was a money pit,” he said. “That was really the place where Sprint started to stumble, was in trying to integrate the Nextel stuff in and deal with the rebanding. They had other problems, but this was kind of the thing that was the first roadblock in their growth.”

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It’s all in the rear-view mirror now, but it had implications for current spectrum policies, according to Feld. People with new technologies sincerely believe their services aren’t going to introduce interference to incumbents, but how do you know for sure? A lot of work goes into defining “harmful” interference, including predictions that depend on device receivers, transceivers and the quality of these products.

There are a lot of variables in the real world. “This is not science. This is the application of science to the real world, and that is the difference. The real world is complicated,” Feld said, adding that if the FCC had not allowed the commercial services in the 800 MHz band, a lot less innovation in mobile services would have occurred back in those early days.  

Getting it done

While the program took 17 years to complete, it took the commission only a matter of minutes to vote on its conclusion Thursday after a presentation by Michael Wilhelm, chief of the Policy and Licensing Division of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. He oversaw the proceeding and was involved in the complex spectrum reconfiguration project since 2004.

Source: Screen shot of FCC slide 

As Commissioner Brendan Carr noted in his prepared remarks, the rebanding process involved the spectrum reconfiguration of tens of thousands of base stations. “It presented a myriad of complex issues but with Michael at the helm, we were able to get it done,” he said, noting that Wilhelm is his next-door neighbor.

RELATED: Sprint: 800 MHz rebanding project nearing completion

Over the course of the program’s lifetime, more than 2,100 systems were rebanded and 2.6 million radios were retuned or replaced. “If we were making this presentation in the commission meeting room, 2.6 million radios would probably fill the room and not allow much room for me to make this presentation,” Wilhem said.

But the benefits of rebanding went beyond alleviating interference, he noted. The FCC’s 2004 order made additional spectrum available to public safety agencies and many public safety licensees took the opportunity to invest in system upgrades, making their systems more reliable, resilient and interoperable.

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel also gave a shoutout to Wilhelm, saying he deserves a special thank-you for his public service, which made it possible for both first responders and consumers to use the airwaves without interference. She also named a long list of other agency staff who were part of the process.

Carr concluded his remarks by wishing Wilhelm the best in his much-deserved retirement – one that hopefully won’t require a lot of time on spectrum issues.

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