By Brett Haan, Managing Director, 800 MHz Transition Administrator
ny attempt to resolve a problem involves performing a great deal of research, weighing the options, and determining whether the challenge is worth the effort that will be expended. In the case of the problem of interference among the 800-megahertz (MHz) band’s radio airwaves, resolution is necessary, regardless of the challenges involved. The need for the reconfiguration of the 800-MHz band has resulted from increasing incidents of radio frequency interference and communication “dead zones” affecting the radio airwaves within this band. These radio airwaves are most commonly used by public safety first responders to communicate during times of distress. Interference with public safety communications systems has resulted from the intensive use of 800-MHz frequencies by commercial users.
In 2004, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a Report and Order designed to eliminate the interference problem by reconfiguring the 800-MHz band to separate generally incompatible high-site and low-site technologies. The 800-MHz Transition Administrator, LLC (hereafter referred to as TA), administers this program. Reconfiguring all systems within the 800-MHz band requires an extensive and massive effort, but due to the potential hazards that may arise without reconfiguration, this effort is critical.
Several major factors play a role in the reconfiguration process: numerous affected parties, a vast surface area to cover, and a timeline. As expected, the transition process is challenging and experiences ongoing logistical, operational, and organizational challenges. However, the TA works with all stakeholders to address these challenges as they arise.
Preparation is the key to helping facilitate a successful implementation for licensees. Included here are some topics that may help licensees better prepare for their specific reconfiguration.
Mutual Aid and Interoperability
Many of the 800-MHz systems affected by reconfiguration are shared or have interdependencies with other systems. The TA works with licensees and with Sprint Nextel to help coordinate interoperability solutions to preserve public safety communications during reconfiguration.
Reconfiguration is taking place across the country in four waves, based on groupings of the 55 National Public Safety Planning Advisory Committee (NPSPAC) regions (see figure 1). Much of Wave 1 occurs in heavily populated urban areas, where many agencies with well-established interoperability communicate across jurisdictional lines on a daily basis. The task of reprogramming hundreds of thousands of radios is complicated and will take many hours to complete. Licensees must take these interdependencies into account and plan for the continuity of mutual-aid operations and interoperability during the reconfiguration of their systems. For example, in some areas, agencies that share communications have formed an interoperability group and have designated a lead agency to address the regional coordination, planning, and implementation activities associated with the interoperability system. Other individual licensees may elect to coordinate on their own for interoperability and mutual-aid continuity through reconfiguration. In either case, the lead agency or individual licensee should negotiate and reach agreement with Sprint Nextel regarding the payment of its reasonable and prudent expenses associated with these efforts. That agreement must be submitted to the TA for review and approval.
The TA’s Mutual Aid and Interoperability fact sheet outlines the steps that the TA recommends licensees complete as part of the planning process to ensure that no organizations or groups of users are missed during reconfiguration, to generate specific interoperability requirements, and to coordinate interoperability solutions to preserve public safety communications during reconfiguration.1
The Reconfiguration Process: A New Option
In March 2007, the TA launched the Subscriber Equipment Deployment (SED) initiative, enabling licensees to obtain replacement equipment, software upgrade kits, and associated services in advance of negotiating the costs to reconfigure system infrastructure. The SED initiative is designed to expedite the completion of reconfiguration by providing licensees the option to jump-start implementation activities for subscriber equipment (i.e., replacing and/or reprogramming radios) and commence other implementation activities before negotiating the terms and costs for reconfiguring system infrastructure.
The initiative allows licensees to begin the implementation process without having to know all of the details regarding their system up front—knowledge that was necessary under the original reconfiguration process. Licensees and vendors will now be able to start implementation activities earlier and spread the work of reconfiguration more evenly. For example, a licensee with 10,000 radios will not be put in the position of trying to install and reprogram the subscriber equipment in an overly short period of time. The TA has worked with the public safety community, Sprint Nextel, and other affected program stakeholders to develop the SED initiative to provide licensees with more control over implementation time frames within the context of the program.
Both the SED initiative and the original reconfiguration process have benefits that are specific to each. The potential benefits of following the SED initiative include the following:
- Licensees and vendors are able to balance workload and resources over a longer period of time by commencing reconfiguration of subscriber equipment earlier.
- Implementation activities can move forward on subscriber equipment while parties complete negotiations for infrastructure reconfiguration activities and costs.
- Participation is possible even if a licensee is only in the planning phase.
- Participation is available during mediation.
- A frequency reconfiguration agreement (FRA) can be amended later to account for additional subscriber equipment not included in the SED agreement.
- Not all information about a specific system is needed up front; it can be included as the process moves forward.
Participation in this initiative is optional; however, the TA recommends that all licensees—especially those with large fleets of subscriber units or those with regular fleet rotation schedules—that have not yet executed an FRA, including those in planning or mediation, evaluate the benefits of participation. If an agency does not believe that SED will be appropriate for its specific system or case, it may continue to pursue the original reconfiguration process.
A Note about Mediation
The mediation, or alternative dispute resolution (ADR), process was established by the FCC to assist licensees and Sprint Nextel to constructively resolve differences and reach agreements. Mediation has proved to be a constructive experience for those who prepared for negotiations but were unable to reach agreements in the allotted negotiation periods. In many cases, the onset of mediation has proved to be the extra push parties need to resolve outstanding issues and bring the negotiations to a successful close. To date, mediation has been extremely successful in helping parties negotiate mutually satisfactory agreements, often within the first 30 days of ADR. However, it is equally important to realize that entering mediation unprepared or ill equipped—with no cost estimate, no attempt to negotiate, no counterproposal, and so on—will result in increased costs and delay reconfiguration.
If licensees reach this phase of the process, their responsibility is to prepare thoroughly and participate fully. As with any phase of negotiation, parties should strongly consider obtaining appropriate legal counsel. Activity within mediation is scaled according to the needs of the parties in reaching agreement and resolving disputes. In particular, mediators base the level of mediation on their assessment of the parties’ progress as well as the need for additional time to secure vendor support or legal counsel, obtain planning funding and/or complete planning (where required), and commence active negotiations. If parties are near an agreement but their mandatory negotiation period expires, they should explain this to their assigned TA mediator and continue their discussions. No one will have to “start over.” Having experience working with other agencies in prior waves, TA mediators are very familiar with 800-MHz band reconfiguration issues as well as the needs of public safety systems and are able to rely on existing TA expertise as well.
The TA is currently reviewing how far along public safety licensees are in the implementation process in order to determine which can begin replacing, retuning, or reprogramming their infrastructure in 2007.
During implementation, the TA will regularly review and assess the licensees’ schedules, gathering data to address implementation challenges early and throughout the process.
Additionally, the TA will continue to provide guidance to assist licensees through the process. For example, if licensees need to make an adjustment to the scope of the work, their schedule, and/or their estimated costs, the TA has provided guidance for preparing a change notice. Further guidance will also be available on the TA Web site (www.800TA.org) and through online training seminars (Webinars).
The TA Is Here to Help
From the beginning of the program, the TA has maintained a team to manage inquiries and requests for assistance. All those requiring assistance with the reconfiguration process should contact the TA by phone at 888-800-8220 or via e-mail at comments@800TA.org . Acknowledging that reconfiguration is an extensive process, the TA understands the need to be as accessible as possible.
To provide additional support to licensees requiring assistance, the TA has hired individuals from the public safety communications community, all of whom bring a wealth of knowledge and experience dealing with the operational challenges faced by licensees. These public safety specialists are available to provide guidance and assistance to licensees and can be contacted at the phone number and e-mail address noted in the previous paragraph.
The TA utilizes a variety of information sources to proactively disseminate information regarding the reconfiguration process. These sources include newsletters, attendance at nationwide conferences and events, topic-specific training sessions (Webinars), letters to licensees, and policy and process guidance. This information, as well as additional information on mutual aid and interoperability, the SED initiative, mediation, implementation, and all other matters relating to 800-MHz band reconfiguration, is available on the TA’s Web site at www.800TA.org .
The goal of the 800-MHz band reconfiguration is to provide clear and interference-free airwaves for public safety agencies, thereby keeping safe both public safety personnel and the communities they serve.■
1800 MHz Transition Administrator, 800 MHz Reconfiguration Program: Mutual Aid and Interoperability, http://www.800ta.org/content/PDF/reconfiguration_materials/Updated_Interoperability_Fact_Sheet.pdf (accessed August 17, 2007).