WASHINGTON-American Mobile Telecommunications Association President Alan Shark said negotiations among business and government leaders could lead to a new 800 MHz specialized mobile radio licensing plan by fall and help restore some unity to divided small and large operators.

“I think there’s a real willingness on all sides,” said Shark, whose representation of the SMR industry has been challenged by a splinter group of small two-way radio dispatch firms formed a year ago to fight proposed changes it feels favors big firms.

“All parties have a clear picture of the realities we face,” stated Shark, following AMTA’s annual meeting held in Washington late last month.

One of those realities is the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to auction 800 MHz SMR channels for wide-area digital communications systems like those Nextel Communications Inc. is building and buying throughout the nation providing dispatch, messaging and wireless telephony services. Two hundred channels or 10 megahertz would be put up for sale.

The plan has serious implications for small SMRs, some of whom have operated since the early 1980s on the frequency band the FCC wants to sell. The SMRs say they cannot compete with Nextel in an auction. Therefore, under the current FCC proposal, small operators could choose to stay where they are without the ability to expand, move to other frequencies (with identification and adequacy for dispatch yet to be determined) or sell out.

“How is this in the public interest to disrupt this service that’s been ongoing for 15 years or more in most places?” asked John Peacock, vice president of SMR operations for Peacock’s Radio and Wild’s Computer Service Inc. in West Memphis, Ark.

Federal regulators reply that the current regulatory structure needs fixing, noting spectrum warehousing by application mills, a huge licensing backlog of 40,000 applications and the inability of rules to adapt to new technologies and market trends. The FCC stopped accepting 800 MHz SMR applications last August and will not lift the freeze until after new rules are adopted.

“We don’t want to create `spectrum haves and spectrum have-nots,’*” said Rosalind Allen, chief of the FCC’s Commercial Wireless Division.

Yet the agency’s proposal for overhauling 800 MHz SMR guidelines leaves small SMRs angry and disenchanted.

If all of Nextel’s acquisitions are approved, the Rutherford, N.J., company will control nearly half of the 1.8 million 800 MHz SMR units in service. It does not appear, however, that small- and medium-sized SMRs comprising the rest of the industry are going that route.

Two types of next-generation SMR systems are evolving. One is based on the cellular network model, which uses multiple transmitters operating at low power levels to gain increased channel capacity through frequency reuse. Motorola Inc., the nation’s biggest mobile communications manufacturer, has designed such systems for Nextel and others. The technology is still being debugged and it remains to be seen how successful Nextel will be in moving analog users to digital channels.

The other architecture, which Geotek Communications Inc. has adopted to drive 900 MHz SMR systems using Frequency Hopping Multiple Access digital technology, combines elements from cellular systems (channel reuse) and traditional SMR systems employing a single, high-power transmitter.

There are signs of progress, perhaps even a major breakthrough in the rancor-ridden debate on 800 MHz SMR rules.

FCC officials say they are ready to revise the 800 MHz SMR wide-area proposal issued last fall. For instance, geographic service areas based on business commuting patterns, which are larger than basic trading areas yet smaller than major trading areas, have been embraced. The FCC prefers an industry-crafted solution, but will adopt new regulations in October with or without a consensus of big and small SMRs.

FCC and industry officials say several regulatory options are now on the table that small operators might find more palatable.

Small operators have enlisted support from Congress to oppose 800 MHz SMR auctions. But it is clear the FCC does not consider auctions negotiable. Nevertheless, it appears the agency is ready to make other concessions to small SMRs.

“We have got to be able to talk about the `a-word’ and talk about the issues associated with auctions while at the same time recognizing that incumbents have real rights and real needs that have to be accommodated and can be accommodated,” said FCC Chairman Reed Hundt to the applause of AMTA members.

The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau will make recommendations on 800 MHz wide-area licensing this month and, following feedback from the five commissioners, meet with industry representatives in a key meeting next month.

In addition to concerns about the 800 MHz SMR rewrite, attendees at the AMTA conference urged the FCC to develop new guidelines for 200-220 MHz narrowband dispatch service and to permit modifications to existing systems in the meantime.


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