Wireless Bureau sets final deadline for M-LMS build-outs.

Way back before GPS was so widely available, the Commission created the Multilateration Location and Monitoring Service (M-LMS). Its purpose: keeping track of vehicles. Think operators pinpointing the locations of vehicles around a city (or around the country). M-LMS licenses were auctioned (to a handful of players) in 1999 and 2001. But in the decade-plus since, no M-LMS licensee has provided commercial service.

Attentive readers may recall that one licensee, Progeny/NextNav, obtained a waiver to provide non-vehicular location service (e.g.,a cell phone tracking service). And Progeny/NextNav has also announced plans to offer E911 location based service and mobile advertising. But vehicle location? Nada. Readers may also recall that, while the FCC invited comments on proposals to expand permissible uses of the service back in 2006, earlier this year it shut that proceeding down without taking any action.

As initially granted way back when, M-LMS licenses were subject to both interim and end-of-term construction deadlines. Since then, however, the FCC has generously and repeatedly provided extensions of time (at least seven additional years!) for construction, mostly in response to licensees’ assertions that no M-LMS equipment was commercially available.

In August, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau signaled that the days of liberal extensions are now over.

The announcement occurred in an order addressing what will likely be the final round of extension requests. The Bureau has granted those requests, but with a caveat: licensees (other than Progeny, which has a separate extension/waiver request still pending) must finish building by September 4, 2016 (the new mid-term construction deadline) and September 4, 2018 (the new end-of-term construction deadline). The Bureau’s message could not be more clear: “The Bureau will not consider future requests for waiver or extension of either the interim or end-of-term construction deadline based on claims related to lack of equipment.”

With their (presumably) one last extension, M-LMS licensees will be expected “to make appropriate business decisions regarding their M-LMS licenses, including deployment of services or, if necessary, engage in secondary market transactions.” And if the equipment market doesn’t develop “consistent with M-LMS licensees’ chosen business plans”, tough: “licensees will nonetheless be subject to the construction requirements.”

Several licensees have petitioned for reconsideration, arguing that the 2016/2018 deadlines don’t give them enough time and that the Commission’s threat (or is it a promise?) to terminate their licenses is “Draconian” (capital letter actually used). One petitioner is asking for five- and ten-year extensions of the mid-term and end-of-term constructions deadlines because, according to this licensee, the Commission’s decision essentially ignores the realities of business planning. Another licensee agrees that the latest extension is inadequate, but argues that it deserves more extra time than the others because it supposedly has done more than the others towards developing intelligent transport systems.

So where does that leave us? Effective spectrum management generally calls for the regulator to maximize use of spectrum and not allow spectrum to remain fallow. In this instance, the frequency band assigned for M-LMS use – 902-928 MHz – is already well-used and effectively shared among a number of non-M-LMS services: on a primary basis, by Federal radiolocation and Part 18 Industrial Scientific and Medical (ISM) users; on a secondary basis, by other Federal government users and amateur radio; and on an unlicensed basis, by hundreds of millions of devices. While Progeny has made at least the minimum efforts to build out its network, the remaining licensees appear to have made no efforts to build. This raises the question of just how much time is “reasonable” for licensees to develop and build systems, and how much regulatory certainty should be given to co-sharers of spectrum. The Commission now has a chance to address that question for M-LMS. We shall see what happen. Check back here for updates.