FCC Approves Relocation Mechanism for FirstNet Spectrum

August 26, 2016–The FCC has unanimously approved a mechanism proposed by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) to help public safety narrowband incumbents currently operating in the 700 megahertz spectrum allocated to FirstNet relocate to other frequencies.  However, the Commission declined to impose build-out obligations on FirstNet that go beyond those specified by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. In the report and order and notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) adopted Aug. 24 and released today in Public Safety dockets 16-269, 12-94, and 06-229 and Wireless Telecommunications docket 06-150, the FCC said that the public safety spectrum provisions of the 2012 Act “provide adequate milestones to ensure rural coverage while also providing both FirstNet and the states flexibility in terms of planning for optimal network coverage. We will continue to monitor FirstNet’s buildout progress against these milestones, and expect that existing reporting obligations will be sufficient to allow the Commission to carry out its license renewal responsibilities.”

The accompanying NPRM launches “a new proceeding to seek comment on proposed procedures for administering the state opt-out process as provided under the Public Safety Spectrum Act, as well as on our implementation of the specific statutory standards by which the Commission is obligated to evaluate state opt-out applications,” the FCC said.

Regarding relocation of incumbents, the order says, “We find that prompt relocation of incumbents remains an imperative to successful deployment of the FirstNet nationwide public safety broadband network, and that certainty with respect to the timing of this process will support this goal. We also agree with FirstNet and other commenters that support the funding proposal made by FirstNet. Accordingly, we find that the process that FirstNet has proposed and the grant program it has implemented are sufficient to ensure a smooth, timely, and adequately funded transition by narrowband incumbents, while providing flexibility to all involved.

“Therefore, to ensure certainty and prompt action on the part of all parties involved, and consistent with the Commission’s relocation determination in the Second Report and Order and subsequent waiver decisions and with the mandate of the Spectrum Act, we will permit incumbents to remain on FirstNet’s licensed spectrum until August 31, 2017, after which they will be required to vacate absent FirstNet’s express consent to remain longer. This will provide a 12-month transition period for incumbents, consistent with the 12-month period afforded to those incumbents that have received grant funding from FirstNet. However, as noted below, we will not permit continued operation by those incumbents that have either previously discontinued operations or that are no longer in operation after the effective date of this Report and Order.”

The Commission also prohibited incumbents “from deploying additional facilities on FirstNet’s licensed spectrum beyond those currently deployed as of the adoption date of this Report and Order. Accordingly, as of the adoption date of this Report and Order, we hereby terminate all such authority to initiate new deployments pursuant to waivers previously granted by the Commission or Bureau, which had authorized deployment beyond the 2007 deadline.” The order adds, “We note that the majority of narrowband incumbents operate site-based facilities which consist of either (1) one or two base station repeaters with associated mobile units, or (2) mobile units only without a base station. For these incumbents, relocating to the narrowband spectrum should not be technically complex and therefore it is reasonable to expect them to complete the transition well in advance of August 31, 2017.

“For licensees with more expansive systems, FirstNet has affirmed that these licensees will be permitted to continue operating on the broadband segment of the band after the relocation deadline, if needed, at FirstNet’s discretion,” it continues, adding that the FCC “expect[s] FirstNet to exercise this discretion reasonably and in good faith to accommodate legitimate incumbent needs and ensure that there is no interruption of narrowband operations that are essential to public safety. We also require FirstNet to notify the Commission of each incumbent extension request and whether the request has been granted or denied.

“Furthermore, we find there is adequate spectrum in the consolidated block of 700 MHz public safety narrowband spectrum to accommodate the narrowband incumbents. State licensees, such as Virginia and Illinois, will transition to the State Licensee channels reserved in the consolidated block solely for use by the states. The remaining licensees will transition to the General Use channels that are reserved for them in the consolidated narrowband block by their respective Regional Planning Committees,” it says.

The FCC directed FirstNet to provide a list of relocation grant recipients after it has processed the applications, as well as a list of incumbents that have told FirstNet they will fund their own relocations.  Based on the lists, the FCC directed the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau to “conform the licenses of each identified incumbent to the modified terms that we have adopted generally in the present rulemaking decision.”

The FCC declined the suggestion of some commenters that it should “play a role in resolving disputes between FirstNet and incumbent licensees over relocation costs. FirstNet is providing relocation funding through a Federal Funding Opportunity grant program, with the safeguards and checks associated with such a program. ….Therefore, we find that any disputes that may arise over how Federal funds from this grant program are used to facilitate relocation will be best resolved within the grant program process, and that there is no need or legal basis for intervention in these issues by the Commission at this time.”

In a separate statement, Commissioner Ajit Pai recalled a recent trip to West Virginia where he viewed flood damage and visited a 911 center. “In the Spectrum Act of 2012, Congress charged the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) with establishing a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network. A nationwide network necessarily includes coverage of rural areas. Although this Order does not adopt a specific rule that requires FirstNet to meet rural deployment benchmarks, I’m satisfied that we have made substantial progress in this regard. The Order makes clear that FirstNet has a statutory duty to ensure substantial rural coverage.  It recognizes that FirstNet has incorporated rural coverage benchmarks into its procurement process.  And it specifically states that the FCC will monitor deployment in rural areas in order to ensure that FirstNet has met its legal obligations,” Commissioner Pai said.

In a statement, FirstNet Chief Executive Officer Mike Poth said, “We’re pleased that the FCC has moved forward in unanimously voting out the NPRM on the FCC processes for a state that chooses to conduct its own Radio Access Network deployment. We appreciate the FCC’s diligent work on this issue and look forward to getting this important network deployed.”

Mr. Poth added, “The FCC also took a critical step in planning for the deployment of the Network by approving the Order to relocate public safety incumbents from Band 14 spectrum. Together with our Band 14 Incumbent Spectrum Relocation Grant Program, we can ensure a smooth transition for our public safety stakeholders. We appreciate the FCC’s collaboration on this issue to ensure the spectrum is clear in advance of the deployment of the network.”

FirstNet recently announced eight grant awards totaling nearly $27 million to help public safety incumbents using 700 megahertz Band 14 spectrum relocate to other frequencies (TRDaily, Aug. 18).

In a statement, NTCA Senior Vice President–industry affairs and business development Michael Romano said that although his the trade association of rural broadband providers had “hoped the FCC might adopt more specific guidelines for FirstNet deployment in rural areas, we are very pleased that the order released by the commission today recognizes the statutory obligation of FirstNet to ensure ‘substantial rural coverage’ and includes an express commitment to monitor FirstNet’s ongoing compliance with that mandate. FirstNet’s request for proposal contemplates real commitments with respect to rural deployment and leveraging of existing rural network assets, and NTCA’s rural telecom members look forward to working to help FirstNet and its partners achieve those commitments consistent with the vision of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.” —Lynn Stanton, lynn.stanton@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily