Nextel agrees to solve interference problem

WASHINGTON (AP) – Nextel Communications Inc. agreed Monday to a plan created by federal regulators aimed at ending interference from Nextel cell phones that disrupts public safety communication systems in hundreds of communities.

The Federal Communications Commission will give Reston, Va.-based Nextel a new piece of broadcast spectrum in return for the company vacating other parts of the spectrum and paying to reconfigure the airwaves it currently occupies.

The agreement, valued at $4.8 billion, is the end of a years-long process aimed at eliminating cell phone interference that in some cases leaves police, fire and other emergency personnel unable to communicate.

There have been no reports that the interference caused injuries or deaths, though public safety officials have said personnel are endangered whenever they respond to a call and cannot communicate.

"This has, indeed, been the most difficult, complex and challenging issue I have faced in seven years at the commission," said outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell. "It is gratifying on so many levels to see the plan coming to life."

Powell was joined at a news conference by Nextel President Tim Donahue, who called the agreement "simply the right thing to do for first responders, homeland security and for Nextel."

Donahue said the transition would begin immediately and should be completed in three years. The company’s planned merger with Sprint Corp. won’t affect the agreement.

Nextel says its customers won’t notice any changes or service disruptions.

Radios used by police, firefighters and other first responders now broadcast on the same 800-megahertz spectrum as Nextel cell phones. In many cases, Nextel transmits cell phone calls on spectrum space next to that used by emergency service personnel to dispatch calls. For example, if a radio dispatch is made at 850 MHz near a Nextel cell tower broadcasting at 851 MHz, it can be drowned out.

The agreement calls for Nextel to lose some spectrum in the 800-frequency band, bundle together its remaining spectrum in the band and move it further away from emergency service frequencies. Those frequencies will be relocated next to each other, which should dramatically reduce the likelihood of interference, FCC officials said.

"Command and control rely on effective communication and interference was limiting our ability to do exactly that," said Bob DiPoli, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and also the fire chief in Needham, Mass. "The agreement allows for clear communications for first responders."

Nextel will gain valuable new spectrum space in the 1.9-gigahertz range, where other major wireless carriers operate.

The FCC valued Nextel’s acquisition at about $4.8 billion. Nextel must pay that amount but will get a $2 billion credit from the FCC for the spectrum range it is returning.

Nextel is paying for technical costs associated with relocating public safety groups and clearing the airwaves in the 800 band, and will also get a credit for those costs, which past estimates have placed at $1.3 billion.

Rival cell phone company Verizon Wireless had protested the FCC plan, saying it amounts to a taxpayer giveaway to Nextel. Verizon wanted the 1.9-GHz spectrum to be publicly auctioned and has said it would be willing to pay $5 billion.

But the two companies in November reached a legal settlement in which Verizon Wireless dropped its opposition. In return, Nextel withdrew its claim of trademark rights for the phrase "push to talk" and the word "push" to describe the popular walkie-talkie service that Nextel introduced to cell phones and which Verizon and other rivals now offer.