Will Nextel essentially be reincarnated as a private LTE provider?

The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking that would allow a broadband allocation at 900 MHz, reconfiguring the band from its current narrowband-only allocation and opening up the possibility that it could support private LTE in addition to private two-way radio systems.

The full NPRM had not yet been posted to the FCC’s website as of Wednesday evening, but the agency released records on Wednesday which indicated that it was taking the 900 MHz NPRM off the agenda for its open meeting this Friday, because it had already adopted the NPRM.

According to the FCC’s summary, the NPRM proposes to “reconfigure the 900 MHz band to create a broadband segment to facilitate technologies and services for a wide variety of businesses, including critical infrastructure, as well as seek comment on various transition mechanisms to achieve this goal.”

The FCC NPRM adoption represents a win for pdvWireless, which is a major spectrum holder at 900 MHz and has advocated for years for a broadband allocation within the band in order to support private LTE for utilities and other industrial users. Back in the days of Nextel, Sprint used holdings in the 896-901/935-940 MHz to operate its iDEN network. In 2014, that Nextel spectrum was acquired by PDV, which is headed up by a number of former Nextel executives, including two of Nextel’s co-founders. Although there are other licensees in the band, pdvWireless says that it is the largest holder with a nationwide footprint of licenses in the spectrum, owning about 60% of the channels with a nationwide footprint and an average of 240 channels (out of 399) in most major metro markets.

In late 2014, pdvWireless made a proposition to the FCC: 900 MHz should be realigned to allow a
Private Enterprise Broadband allocation, or PEBB, and the spectrum subdivided in order to support both narrowband and broadband operations (such as LTE).

“The rules governing the 900 MHz band have not been updated in any meaningful technical
or operational sense for more than 30 years,” pdvWireless said in one of its FCC filings. “The spectrum remains assigned in 12.5 kHz bandwidth increments, affording limited opportunity to aggregate channels for wideband operation. Outside the major urban areas, much of it has never been placed into operation.” (Read more on pdvWireless’ efforts to convince the FCC to realign the band and its business strategy here.)

In late 2017, the FCC started a Notice of Inquiry to explore whether it should go ahead with a realignment of the 900 MHz band “to better serve private land mobile radio users’ current and future communications needs.” Last fall, the agency’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau froze current operations in the band in order to “preserve the current landscape of authorized operations in the 900 MHz band pending Commission action.” With the adoption of the NPRM, the realignment of the band moves closer to reality — and if it succeeds, pdv begins to look even more like a reincarnation of Nextel: same spectrum, some of the same leaders, but with the new ability to provide broadband services (and some of its old stand-bys, too, considering that LTE features now include mission-critical push-to-talk.)

“We thank Chairman Pai and the Commissioners for adopting the 900 MHz NPRM, taking us one step closer to unlocking the full potential that this spectrum band has to offer,” said Robert Schwarz, president and COO of pdvWireless, in a statement released Wednesday. “Designating this valuable spectrum for broadband will allow innovation and investment to flow, bringing the benefits of broadband to a new range of private enterprise customers, including utilities and other critical enterprise entities. We at PDV believe that private, secure wireless networks, which are essential to securing our nation’s grid and providing broadband to private enterprise, are a perfect fit for this block of spectrum.”

PDVWireless is currently working with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado on a project to test a private LTE broadband network for remote monitoring and control of energy distribution systems; that project utilizes pdv’s 900 MHz spectrum holdings.

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