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Plan to clear the air for police radios hits snag

A proposed swap of airwaves to cut cell phone interference with dozens of police and fire radio systems nationwide has been held up by a less complex proposal from others in the industry.

The rival proposals have vexed and divided the staff of the Federal Communications Commission as few issues have, in part because each plan would in some ways benefit the party proposing it.

The impasse threatens to delay resolution of a problem that has been hampering emergency response capabilities since the mid-1990s.

The FCC appeared headed toward approval of the airwave swap proposed last December by Nextel Communications and a coalition of public-safety agencies until Motorola and a group of wireless companies stepped in with an alternative plan last month.

The root of the interference problem is that frequencies used by public safety agencies, Nextel and other mobile radio services are interlaced. As a result, the far more numerous antenna towers Nextel uses for its cell phone service sometimes drown out public-safety radios, resulting in "dead spots" in coverage in several dozen cities, including Seattle and Miami.

In fall 2001, Nextel first proposed giving up spectrum that would allow creating an interference-free public safety block. In trade, Nextel would get contiguous airwaves in a band now reserved for satellite phone services. Nextel agreed to pay $850 million toward costs for public safety and private carriers to reprogram equipment or buy new gear.

But mobile phone carriers say the plan unfairly hands Nextel prime spectrum that otherwise could be sold at auction by the FCC for billions of dollars.

Critics of the Nextel plan also say the spectrum swap would disrupt about half the nation's 2,200 public-safety agencies, even though interference incidents are isolated. In addition, it would take nearly four years to complete, and it might not fully eliminate the interference.

Last month, Motorola, which makes most public-safety radios, told the FCC it has developed a device that can filter out Nextel's signals while still receiving public-safety transmissions. "We think there's a technical solution," says Motorola's Steve Sharkey.

Public-safety agencies can get the device when they upgrade to new radios, which could take years, or they can retrofit existing radios. A group of wireless firms backs that plan in tandem with stronger interference protections.

But the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials calls the proposal "reactive" to interference events. And it's unclear who would pay for the upgrades under the alternative plan.

"You've got to fix the underlying problem," says Nextel's Larry Krevor. He says interference is more widespread than critics say, and it's growing. He says only a swap can cleanly address all the causes.

Some observers suggest Motorola may be opposing a swap because that could open its market to rival radio makers. But others say Motorola would benefit from equipment upgrades in either case.