FCC gives Sprint go-ahead to upgrade 800 MHz network in Portland metro area

As part of Sprint's (NYSE: S) years-long effort to reband public safety entities, the FCC has granted a waiver that will allow Sprint to deploy its 800 MHz network in parts of Washington state that are considered key to its service in the Portland, Ore., metro area.

Sprint already has deployed both 800 MHz CDMA and 800 MHz LTE throughout Oregon, but the greater Portland area encompasses parts of Washington state, as the two states are separated by a river and a lot of commuters travel between the two states every day.

But because there are still areas of Washington state in need of rebanding, that has held back Sprint's efforts to improve service in the area. Typically, the law prohibits broadband operations at 821-824/866-869 MHz anywhere in Washington state until every state licensee in that state has been retuned. In this case, however, Sprint argued that upgrading its network in this area would not interfere with any of the public safety agencies in the region.

"Sprint appreciates the FCC's favorable and prompt action on Sprint's waiver request which will result in vastly improved coverage, in-building service and network quality for Sprint's customers in the Metropolitan Portland area in portions of Clark, Cowlitz, Pacific and Skamania Counties in Washington State," the carrier said in a statement via email to FierceWirelessTech. "Sprint continues to work with the few remaining public safety jurisdictions in Washington that have not completed their 800 MHz retunes so that Sprint can bring the same network enhancements to citizens throughout the state."

The waiver is related to the decade-old rebanding that Sprint inherited in part from its acquisition of Nextel. While the FCC allocated spectrum for wireless operators in the 1980s, it had no way of knowing how much the wireless industry would grow – and that it would interfere with the public safety radios.

The FCC in 2004 ended up creating a plan to fix it, namely by moving public safety users from the higher part of the band to the lower part. As part of the deal the FCC hammered out, Nextel was to cover costs of the rebanding; that same year, Sprint announced it was acquiring Nextel.

In the waiver request, Sprint explained that the areas in Washington state just north of Portland where it wants to use the 866-869 MHz portion of the band in advance of the full state's reconfiguration would not increase the risk of interference with any of the Washington state licensees. Sprint Senior Counsel James Goldstein had formally requested the waiver, explaining that Sprint's planned sites in four Washington counties -- Clark, Cowlitz, Pacific and Skamania – are all located more than 70 miles away from the two closest Washington public safety sites still operational in the old band.

In granting the waiver, the FCC said Sprint must maintain a minimum 70-mile co-channel separation between Sprint's proposed operations at 821-824/866-869 MHz and the closest public safety site still operational in the old band.

Sprint has been working with public safety jurisdictions across the country to move its systems from the top of the band, where they operated next to and intermixed with Sprint Nextel and other cellular carriers. They are still within the 800 band but farther away from Sprint and other carriers to meet the interference rebanding order released in 2004.

The nationwide rebanding is largely done mostly with the exception of parts of Washington state and the U.S-Mexico border in Southern California and Texas. Those areas started later than other rebanding efforts and involve the more complicated cross-border agreements.

In June, FCC International Bureau Chief Mindel DeLaTorre noted progress in spectrum discussions between the U.S. and Mexico. In a blog post, DeLaTorre said a U.S. government delegation traveled to Mexico to attend the first high-level spectrum discussions since Mexico established the Federal Institute of Telecommunications (IFT). On 800 MHz, they agreed to a roadmap accelerating the reconfiguration process along the common border, in accordance with a protocol signed with Mexico in 2012. It includes a process for confirming when channels are cleared in Mexico.

In May, a group of 29 senators wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry urging his department to step up efforts to clear spectrum along the border with Mexico. Around the same time, public safety organizations also urged the U.S. government to accelerate efforts at rebanding along the border, citing the harmful interference public safety entities continue to experience with commercial wireless services in the area.

For more:
- see this FCC letter

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