updated 7/14/2004 12:11:23 AM ET 2004-07-14T04:11:23

Federal regulators unanimously approved a plan Thursday to eliminate disruption to fire and police communication systems by Nextel Communications Inc. cell phones.

The decision by the Federal Communications Commission would give Nextel Communications highly sought airwaves in a band that won't disrupt the radio communications of emergency officials. In exchange, Nextel will abandon some of its airwaves in the 800 megahertz range, where the company's cell phones are causing interference.

Nextel must set aside $2.5 billion to make the switch.

Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest cell phone company, is expected to mount a legal challenge to the plan.

Verizon claims the swap is a giveaway to Nextel because the spectrum it will receive in the swap is worth many billions of dollars. That spectrum should be offered at public auction, the company says.

Verizon general counsel William Barr, a former U.S. attorney general, told the FCC in a recent letter that the agency could be violating federal law by not holding an auction. Verizon has said it would pay $5 billion at auction for the 1.9-gigahertz spectrum.

Police and firefighters first started complaining about the interference five years ago and turned to the FCC for help. The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, based in Daytona Beach, Fla., says that hundreds of public safety agencies nationwide have had difficulty making radio calls, or have had communications disrupted because of Nextel cell phones.

Even without litigation delays, the process of moving public safety and Nextel to new airwaves would take about three years, FCC officials have said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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