With interoperability issues still unresolved, FCC gives many B Block licensees a few more months of breathing room.

If you’re an active Lower 700 MHz band B Block licensee with an interim four-year construction benchmark deadline before December 13, 2013, here’s some good news: unless you happen to fall within a couple of exceptions, the FCC has extended your construction deadline to December 13, 2013.  This tracks a similar extension granted to Lower 700 MHz A Block licensees a couple of months ago.

The construction deadline in question stems from Section 27.14(g), which requires 700 MHz B Block folks both to provide signal coverage and to offer service over at least 35% of the geographic area of their licenses by one  of two dates, either (1) June 13, 2013 (if the initial authorization was granted on June 13, 2009 or earlier), or (2) within four years of the initial license grant.

Since at least 2009, a number of 700 MHz licensees have been complaining that the FCC’s approach to the 700 MHz band – i.e., developing two separate and distinct band classes within the Lower 700 MHz band – has given rise to interoperability issues that have in turn impeded construction.  In March, 2012, the Commission agreed to explore interoperability issues, but beyond the issuance of a Notice of Proposed  Rulemaking, nothing has come of that “Interoperability Proceeding” to date.  Meanwhile, the construction clock has continued to tick down. 

The announced extension reflects the FCC’s recognition that its own failure to act thus far has put some folks in a bind.

The extension does not, however, extend to all Lower 700 MHz B Block licensees.  In particular, the extension is not available to the limited universe of licensees who had already filed notifications of construction for any of their B Block licenses on or before April 9, 2013.  Similarly, the extension won’t help any B Block licensees who (a) filed comments or reply comments (including through their direct or indirect controlling parent or affiliate) in the Interoperability Proceeding, but (b) “did not claim that a lack of interoperability has impeded their ability to take advantage of the benefits of economies of scale in order to build out their networks.”

Another gotcha: The extension will not be transferable.  That means that, if you happen to be buying a Lower 700 MHz B Block license that would otherwise be eligible for the extension, you can’t automatically take advantage of it.  Instead, you’ll have to file on your own for relief from the deadline (or meet the deadline, if that’s possible).

Over the years, a number of licensees have filed for waivers of the deadline.  The extension to December 13, 2013 does not resolve those requests.  Neither does it constitute anything even remotely resembling resolution of the Interoperability Proceeding or any of the questions on the table in that proceeding.

While any extension is likely welcome to those staring at the dwindling number of days, it’s not at all clear that the limited extension will provide any practical relief, particularly if licensees can’t obtain any equipment to meet the Interim Construct Benchmark Deadline until the interoperability issue is resolved.  We’re crossing our fingers that the FCC is able to move quickly to provide clarity on that issue before the day of reckoning arrives.