FCC, Nextel come to terms

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The Nextel shift

Federal Communications Commission officials unanimously approved a controversial deal last week that would move products by Nextel Communications Inc. out of the 800 MHz radio spectrum so they won't interfere with public safety communications systems, which broadcast on that frequency.

Nextel, the nation's sixth largest wireless phone company, would relocate to the 1.9 GHz frequency range. Verizon Wireless and several other carriers opposed the move to the more lucrative licenses, while public safety groups, which have long battled for more airwaves and less interference from commercial entities, supported it.

"It's a significant move because, among other things, the cellular option allows us to take advantage of more bandwidth," said Clark Kimerer, deputy chief of operations in the Seattle Police Department.

The overlap of commercial traffic into public safety communications has been a serious problem as cities and counties have expanded their networks to increase interoperability among jurisdictions, he said. "The more redundancy the better, so this is a welcome development," he said.

"It's pretty favorable," said Harlin McEwen, who is chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police's Communications and Technology Committee, referring to the FCC vote.

But McEwen, a former city police chief and retired FBI deputy assistant director, said his group is unsure whether the deal will become reality. The FCC has to actually issue the order and Nextel officials have to agree to the financial costs involved, which worries public safety groups, he said.

"The big issue is [the FCC] valued the total 1.9 GHz spectrum at $4.8 billion, and what that means is that Nextel has to pay that amount, either in money or in paying our costs or in spectrum they're giving up," McEwen said.

"The information released today by the commission contains few details regarding the obligations its decision would impose on Nextel," company officials said in a statement.

Media reports indicated that the order could require Nextel to establish up to a $2.5 billion letter of credit to cover any costs public safety groups will incur from reorganizing in the 800 MHz band.

Verizon Wireless officials called the FCC decision bizarre.

"Instead of seeking a lawful appropriation from Congress to finance the work of untangling public safety's frequencies from Nextel's interference, the FCC has pushed ahead, while serious legal questions raised by senior congressional leaders remain unanswered," according to a statement from Verizon, the nation's largest wireless carrier. "Has the FCC financed this project illegally by bypassing both the Congress and the auction process?"

Diane Frank contributed to this story.

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