FCC Eyes New Uses For 700 MHz 'Guard Bands'

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering new uses for so-called "guard bands" in the 700 MHz frequency range that were auctioned off to licensees in 2000 and 2001.

The winners of the licenses have deployed only a handful of systems since that time.

In a recently released Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), the regulator says it's seeking comment on possible changes to a series of complex rules that currently govern the 700 MHz guard bands and other potential changes on plans to allocate spectrum in that frequency range. The FCC says it wants to promote more efficient and effective use of the spectrum in view of existing licensees reporting lackluster deployments.

According to the agency, the guard bands are governed by a unique set of service rules that stem from their role in protecting adjacent public-safety users, with licensees, "guard band managers," and frequency coordinators in the adjacent public-safety bands all keeping tabs on the usage, interference questions and geographic assignments written into contracts known as spectrum user agreements.

The NPRM looks at several service-rule changes that may provide greater band usage while maintaining adequate interference protection for public-safety licensees; the possibilities include whether to continue to maintain the existing band-manager rules, whether to eliminate or revise restrictions on leasing for internal purposes and whether to eliminate the prohibition on deploying cellular architectures within the guard bands.

In part, the FCC is taking up the issue at this time because the digital television (DTV) transition passed by the U.S. Congress now has a hard date of Feb. 17, 2009. Analog broadcasters vacating the entire 700 MHz band will make those channels available for commercial wireless, public-safety and guard-band licensees. In addition, the FCC notes as part of its 800 MHz band reconfiguration proceeding, it reclaimed all of Nextel Communications Inc.'s guard-band licenses in 2004 - covering 42 markets - and it will consider proposals to re-license those guard bands.

A secondary portion of the NPRM seeks comment on possible changes to the surrounding "upper portions" of the 700 MHz band. "The FCC tentatively concludes, however, that the adoption of any proposal that would entail shifting the narrowband channels of the public safety band would require an expeditious resolution of issues related to the costs of reprogramming public safety radios, as well as international coordination for the use of any shifted narrowband channels in border areas," the NPRM adds.

Sources say Verizon Wireless and other incumbent carriers have made suggestions to the FCC about building both dedicated and shared public-safety networks in the 700 MHz band plus a proposal from Cyren Call Communications, headed by Nextel's founder, seeks a 30-megahertz set-aside in the upper 700 MHz band for a national commercial/emergency communications network operated by a public trust. That idea has support from the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International (TelecomWeb news break, Aug. 11) and the National Emergency Number Association (TelecomWeb news break, Aug. 22).
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