470-512 MHz (T-Band) … A Fifty-Year Saga
By Mark Crosby
Monday, August 23, 2021 | Comments
T-Band has always been somewhat of a complicated spectrum resource in which to conduct frequency coordination. The band was made available about fifty years ago, before propagation prediction and other spectrum management tools were widely available as they are today. Consequently, the FCC adopted license assignment rules based on what they knew back in the early 1970s. Systems were analog, channels were 25 kHz wide, and deploying trunking technology was not yet a routine system decision. Protocols adopted by the FCC may have made sense 5o years ago, but not so much today.

There were no such designations as “exclusive use” channels then, but if you claimed sufficient mobile loading (90 units for business applicants, and 50 for public safety applicants), a licensee would be assured that they would have no co-channel transmitters within 40 miles of their site. If an applicant could not justify (or was not willing to claim) that they had 90 or 50 units in operation, another applicant or applicants could be authorized to share the channel within the initial 40-mile radius until the total number of mobile units reached the 90 or 50 unit limit. You can imagine the complexity of calculating the mobile loading when there were multiple 40-mile areas of operation in play, but it was nothing the frequency coordinators and applicants could not handle.

However, believe it or not, this goofy rule remains in place today, creating all kinds of licensing craziness given digital technologies and multiple voice paths on a single channel coupled with trunking systems. Applying 1971 licensing rules in the 2021 world of spectrum management has led to confusion, unnecessary application returns, and ridiculous licensing outcomes. A mandated narrowbanding looms on the horizon that is sure to further complicate the mobile loading arithmetic. Honestly, does the Commission believe the mobile loading numbers on T-Band licenses? Should they? Did the FCC ever attempt to verify the number of mobile units claimed by applicants? I do not recall that they ever did, and I doubt they would devote resources towards verification today.

People in the industry over the years have asked me how did the FCC come up with 40 miles as the universal coverage area regardless of antenna heights and power, and how did they determine that 90 and 50 units represented channel capacity limits? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe the determination was made on the assumption that public safety users talk longer on average so that they hit channel capacity sooner and business licensees could stomach greater channel congestion.

And then in 2012, the band was reclaimed by Congress, essentially for commercial interests. It was to be auctioned as a quid-pro-quo for the spectrum and funding mandates authorized to enable the development of a national public safety broadband network, now FirstNet. It was always all about public safety, and no mention was ever made of the business incumbents who were and remain the majority spectrum users in five of the eleven T-Band areas. I swear that those who drafted the legislation did not know, or perhaps they did not want to know, that public safety was not the exclusive user of T-Band. If there was no spectrum solution for public safety interests, imagine the difficulty identifying alternative comparable spectrum for businesses, including critical infrastructure entities.

Then virtually on cue the Commission played its “we need to maintain the value of this band in order to conduct an effective future auction” card and froze almost all applications in early 2013. Incumbents were permitted to modify their system as long as they did not increase spectrum capacity or geographic coverage – or even exchange one frequency for another with identical technical parameters. Applications filed before implementation of the freeze were put on ice. And then we waited for the Congressional leadership to come to their senses and repeal the “T-Band Mandate.” Most everyone knew that there would never be sufficient revenues generated through an auction to cover public safety relocation costs, and there never would be sufficient, comparable alternative spectrum to fully accommodate relocated public safety systems. Studies were conducted noting that public safety relocation costs would be in the billions. Simply relocating business licensees from one segment of T-Band spectrum to another in each market, a solution that was supported by EWA, would cost $500 million, if that approach were ever to be adopted. And then we waited. And then we waited some more. A little more than eight years to be exact.

Then, primarily as a result of the efforts of the public safety industry that retains significant political influence, on December 27, 2020, the President signed the Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act into law as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. The T-Band Act repealed section 6103 of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which had established the T-Band Mandate.

It was a banner day for the FCC, as well as they were now relieved of the obligation to adopt rules implementing the T-Band Mandate. They would not need to try and identify alternative spectrum for both public safety and business licensees or conduct an auction that everyone knew was destined to be a disaster. In June 2020, the Commission had adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the purpose of “commencing the process to meet the statutory deadlines and directives” in the T-Band Mandate, noting that implementing the T-Band Mandate posed significant challenges and potential harm to first responder communications. With the repeal of the T-Band Mandate, on January 13, 2021, the FCC terminated the NPRM, stating simply, “[I]n the absence of the statutory mandate that was the predicate for the T-Band NPRM, we therefore terminate this proceeding.”

It was a great day in the private wireless industry, but the joy would not last. We should have known better than to have reasonable expectations. We should have recognized that nothing comes easy to the private land mobile industry.

On December 28, 2020, EWA filed a letter with the Commission suggesting that T-Band incumbents should be provided an exclusive period to update their licenses to reflect much needed system enhancements that they were not able to implement during the eight-year application freeze. It was a reasonable request, and one with which the FCC agreed. On January 19, 2021, the WTB and PSHSB issued a joint Public Notice (PN) announcing that they would resume processing renewal applications and all other pending T-Band applications within 30 days of release of the PN except those requesting a waiver of the freeze, which would be dismissed without prejudice. Further, the FCC announced that after that 30-day period, incumbent applicants, and Frequency Advisory Committees (FACs) would have a 30-day period to pre-coordinate certain new applications that the FCC would accept from March 22 until June 21. (This deadline was later extended to December 2021 by the FCC for reasons unknown. We can guess, but it’s probably best to leave it alone.)

Incumbent applicants were defined as those with an active call sign under the same FRN authorized to operate on at least one T-Band frequency within that same T-Band market. (Noteworthy: Applications must meet the spectrum efficiency rules in 90.203(j)(3) and 90.209(b)(5), a requirement that had been suspended during the freeze). There were just over 180 T-Band applications submitted during the filing window, and the process functioned admirably. But the devil is always in the details. We should have paid more attention to the FCC’s reminder in the PN that “FACs must continue to comply with the criteria for protecting co-channel and adjacent channel TV stations.”

TV protection had never been a problem during the first 40 years that land mobile shared the spectrum with broadcasters, but the “updated” list of TV stations that the FCC says require protection is an unintended negative consequence of having the band in suspended animation for eight years. First, TV stations have been required to adopt digital technologies, but the protection criteria remain pegged to protection of analog TV contours. This makes no sense as it affords digital TV stations more contour protection than they need while limiting land mobile spectrum opportunities. It is a prime example of bad spectrum management.

On June 24, 2021, the Land Mobile Communications Council (LMCC) filed a Petition for Rulemaking that has proposed changes to the T-Band rules for determining potential interference from land mobile stations to broadcast facilities. It recommends recognizing that TV stations are now transmitting in high-definition digital format (ATSC), not the original analog format (NTSC), and, thus, have smaller contours requiring protection. There has been no word from the Commission regarding this petition.

On June 30, the LMCC filed a letter with the FCC requesting clarification of the PN listing TV stations that are entitled to protection from land mobile. The list includes stations that have not been on the air in decades, stations broadcasting on a digital channel that is different than the “virtual” channel that could be affected by land mobile T-Band facilities, and stations where the information on the FCC’s list does not match the actual license information. As an interim solution, EWA and incumbent licensees have had to resort to preparing waiver requests to secure authority to operate on channels that never should have been denied in the first place. Making matters worse for business incumbents is the fact that these work around licensing strategies require payment of additional FCC waiver fees. We are sure that is not the intention, but still.

We do not have a good answer for applicants who ask us “why do we have to prepare a waiver request and submit FCC fees to protect TV stations that are not operational”? Or “why do we have to protect TV stations that were authorized by the FCC during the application freeze period to operate at locations that violate the FCC’s own minimum distance separation rules from land mobile systems?” “Did they think that we were going to be booted out of the band?”

There are fifteen TV stations that were authorized during the freeze that are too close to land mobile markets according to the FCC’s own rules. The land mobile systems were there first, well before the application freeze was implemented, and well before TV stations were authorized to encroach upon land mobile geographic rights. The Commission seems reluctant to engage in discussions that might lead to explanations and resolutions. We trust that they will do so eventually, otherwise the madness continues and the benefits attributed to the demise of the T-Band Mandate are potentially lost.

Mark E. Crosby serves as CEO of the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA), a national association representing the interests of business enterprises that rely on wireless communications systems, and those organizations that serve these licensees. Throughout his career, Mark has been an advocate for the efficient and effective use of spectrum dedicated for the use of business enterprises. Under his leadership, EWA has become recognized as a fierce defender of EWA-member spectrum rights, an advocate for responsible regulatory policy, and a trusted FCC-certified frequency advisory committee.

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On 8/26/21, Rich Carlson said:
What about reimbursement for those PS agencies that had already invested in relocating to other spectrum to comply with the T-Band mandate Revenue from auctioning off the spectrum was supposed to reimburse these agencies of course that would never occur and millions was spent to comply.

On 8/25/21, Niko said:
I suppose many public safety are moving to SmartNet more cell phone like device. as analog person I miss FM

On 8/25/21, Peter Moncure said:
Many thanks to Mr. Crosby for this excellent and accurate account. The most glaring TV vs. Land Mobile interference issue involves Low Power Digital TV applicants. The Rules offer insufficient protection to the lower adjacent Land Mobile elevated receive sites. Thankfully many LPDTV stations are not operational-- but it would be a good start at fixing this issue by defining exactly what secondary status means with respect to Part 90 primary incumbents

As to the 40 mile re-use Rule it was developed under the assumption of 100W at 100 feet AGL yet it authorized 1000W on whatever mountaintop was available a guarantee of interference and the source of uncountable reams of legal filings and millions of dollars. Can t we just use contours as 90.187 specifies for co-channel That would eliminate the vast majority of issues affecting T-Band today.


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