Plan to clear the
air for police radios hits snag
By Paul Davidson, USA TODAY
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
The impasse threatens to delay resolution of a
problem that has been hampering emergency response capabilities since
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
"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