WASHINGTON-The Federal Communications Commission, facing intensified criticism from industry and Congress, has set up a task force to help it decide the fate of thousands of specialized mobile radio applications that await processing.
The task force, set up two weeks ago, is comprised of Private Radio Bureau Chief Ralph Haller, Deputy Private Radio Bureau Chief Gerald Vaughan, Field Operations Bureau Chief Beverly Baker, Deputy General Counsel David Solomon and Associate Managing Director Walker Feaster.
“These people should be the ones to come up with the answers,” said David Siddall, an aide to Commissioner Susan Ness.
The group’s job is to survey the backlog of 40,000 mobile radio applications at the FCC’s Gettysburg, Pa., licensing offices and to report back to the five commissioners.
The findings will help the FCC decide how to craft licensing rules for wide-area SMR systems. The commission wants to auction blocks of SMR spectrum, but industry representatives claim little, if any, 800 MHz frequencies are available in major urban markets.
If that is true, asks Siddall, why then the SMR application backlog?
Industry and FCC officials suspect the answer is application mills, which charge thousands of dollars for preparing SMR applications and promise the kind of huge financial returns experienced in the cellular industry during the 1980s.
In the meantime, the 800 MHz SMR application filing freeze put into effect Aug. 9 continues. However, the agency said SMR applications for 800 MHz general category channels will be accepted.
SMR applications requesting changes within the operator’s exist
ing coverage area will be looked at on a case-by-case basis. SMR transfer applications also will be processed. The 800 MHz SMR filing freeze was imposed at the same time the regulations for commercial mobile radio services were announced in early August.
Scant new details regarding the filing freeze are contained in the 180-page CMRS ruling, which was released late last month.
The FCC has estimated, according to an industry source, it would cost $700,000 to process pending SMR applications and $2.5 million to return the filings.
As such, federal regulators may be more inclined to continue sitting on applications until wide-area 800 MHz SMR rules are adopted, and then subject those filings to auctions.
At least one FCC commissioner, James Quello, has expressed strong opposition to the SMR application filing freeze and to any further tampering with existing processing procedures.
Quello, in a Sept. 20 memo to Chairman Hundt, stated, “It would not only be inequitable to so drastically change the existing rules at this point; it would also have the effect of delaying or weakening the ability of these service providers to provide a competitive alternative to cellular service.”
The veteran commissioner also said he was not in favor of reconsidering the FCC decision to use lotteries rather than auctions to license unserved cellular areas.
But the combination of freezing new 800 MHz SMR application filings, suspending further processing of pending applications and rewriting rules to accommodate wide-area systems has created a backlash from industry and a public relations nightmare for the FCC.
“Regardless of intent, it amazes me just how severely it (the freeze) hurts small businesses,” said Alan Shark, president of the American Mobile Telecommunications Association.
Small SMR operators, fearing they may be forced to relocate onto other frequencies as spectrum is cleared for auctioning, have begun organizing to fight changes they believe help Nextel Communications Inc. and other large SMRs at the expense of smaller operators.
Some members of Congress have begun to voice dismay about how the FCC is handling the matter.