As a 470-512 MHz (T-Band) licensee or an organization that provides services and/or access to T-Band systems, you are familiar with the fact that the Middle-Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act (Act), passed by Congress in 2012, mandates the repurposing of this critical spectrum for consumer-based uses following a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction. It is debatable that the Congressional decision to take this heavily used band away from public safety (and collaterally from business entities) in exchange for 700 MHz spectrum for deployment of a national public safety broadband network was prudent policy, but the private land mobile industry is now stuck with the impending consequences.
What is particularly worrisome to EWA are the individuals or organizations that attempt to capitalize on FCC inaction and licensees’ lack of understanding of spectrum policy processes to promote premature system migrations. This bulletin is being circulated to minimize the confusion and to provide T-Band licensees with reliable information they can use when making strategic decisions regarding their communication systems.
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Fact vs. Fiction
Fact — The Act requires that not “later than 9 years after the date of enactment,” the FCC must reallocate the spectrum and commence an auction, the proceeds of which will be used by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to make grants that cover relocation costs for public safety entities. The FCC has until February 21, 2021, to begin the auction process and public safety licensees are required to vacate the band two years after the auction is completed. (Notably, the Act failed to recognize business enterprises that also occupy the T-Band.)
Fiction — Incumbent licensees are required to leave the band in 2021. The FCC is required to start an auction process in 2021 that eventually will trigger relocation. No one in authority has any idea at this time when licensees will need to leave the band regardless of the Act’s provisions. Beware of anyone who says otherwise. The FCC has yet to release a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would initiate the public discourse on how T-Band will be repurposed, how business enterprises systems will be treated given their absence in the Act, how the auction will be conducted, exactly when the auction will commence, how auction proceeds will be disbursed by NTIA to cover relocation costs, what happens if the auction proceeds are not enough to cover public safety relocation costs, and what comparable spectrum is supposed to accommodate the requirements of displaced T-Band incumbents. Until these questions are answered, it is not possible to identify an absolute relocation date. It is “years away” is a safe estimate.
Fiction — If we voluntarily relocate from T-Band now, we will be entitled to compensation from the auction proceeds. Any licensee who leaves the band now will not receive an NTIA grant to cover its relocation costs. In accordance with the FCC’s rules, should licensees vacate T-Band, they are required to cancel their licenses. It is near impossible to game this process since NTIA surely will not provide remuneration to former licensees who vacated the band on their own accord or, have not operated a system within T-band for a year or more. Licenses automatically cancel under the later instance. Having been persuaded to leave the band early based on inaccurate information or misunderstanding will not serve as an excuse.
Fiction — The “Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act” has significant bi-partisan momentum in the House and Senate, will soon pass, and will be signed into law by the President enabling T-Band incumbents to remain in place and the FCC to sigh in relief. While efforts to reverse the craziness of the Act are well intentioned, that optimistic outcome has substantial policy obstacles, even for the public safety lobby. The T-Band was originally repurposed as an economic quid-pro-quo in return for public safety receiving a 10 MHz allocation at 700 MHz necessary to build the nationwide broadband network now known as FirstNet. If T-Band is to be returned to public safety (and business enterprises), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) first will need to find that the Federal budget will not be adversely affected. One way to address that would be by surrendering other public safety spectrum with auction revenue potential equal to or greater than whatever the CBO thought auctioning T-Band might bring. The strategy of identifying an alternative block of spectrum that may be exchanged for T-Band has not received universal support; nor is there consensus on what band should be under consideration, although 4.9 GHz has been mentioned. And the clock keeps on ticking towards 2021.
Fiction — The FCC will lift the T-Band application freeze. Despite all efforts, the FCC is disinclined to allow almost any flexibility, even to incumbent licenses, on the premise that the spectrum landscape must not be altered in any way that might reduce future auction proceeds. Incumbents may, however, incorporate spectrum efficient technologies within their systems that require new emission designators and may add/relocate sites as long as previously authorized service areas are not expanded. Assignments of authorizations are also permitted subject to rules governing those transactions.
When important T-Band news is released, EWA will inform our members and customers immediately. We recommend that those interested in T-Band matters refer to the T-Band Fact Sheet which was prepared by the FCC. If you have questions about T-Band, please contact EWA Senior Vice President Robin Cohen at [email protected].