In 2004, the FCC set a deadline of Jan. 1, 2013, for public safety agencies to convert their land mobile radio (LMR) functionality to narrowbanding — a method that allows radios to use spectrum more efficiently, freeing up extra capacity for additional licenses. The mandated change will avert agencies from a more bandwidth-hungry approach called widebanding and make available additional spectrum licenses for crowded metropolitan jurisdictions. It has been a costly burden, however, for jurisdictions already satisfied with the capacity they possess and those gravely unprepared to meet the deadline.
Agencies often can’t afford new equipment, or their leaders are ill-equipped from predecessors who did nothing to prepare. In some cases, especially in rural areas, agencies are unaware of the deadline or think their failure to convert will go unnoticed by the FCC. Once the deadline passes and those who converted their equipment start narrowbanding, that equipment could interfere with LMRs in neighboring jurisdictions still in wideband-mode. The FCC has refused to extend the official deadline, which means some portion of the country will be in violation after it passes, said David Furth, deputy chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. He estimates that one-third of jurisdictions in the nation have already converted. Therefore, the remaining two-thirds are made up of jurisdictions still transitioning and poised to meet the deadline and jurisdictions that are already too behind and won’t meet it — but it’s unknown how many jurisdictions fall in the former and latter categories.
Those that miss the deadline will need to submit applications for special waiver extensions, but they can’t claim that they weren’t given enough time, said Dave Buchanan, committee chair of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council’s (NPSTC) Spectrum Management Committee. The FCC started this endeavor in 1991 and by 1992, the agency established its narrowbanding initiative. It asserted that all public safety and business LMRs operating in the 150-512 MHz radio bands should cease using 25 kHz efficiency technology and begin operating using at least 12.5 kHz efficiency technology. Public safety lobbying organizations objected to the costly new rule during the 1990s, but didn’t prevail. LMR vendors began selling narrowband-capable equipment in 1997, and the FCC specified in 2004 that the conversion deadline was 2013. Over the years, the agency has urged public safety leaders to seek additional funding early and to purchase all refreshment LMRs with narrowband capabilities. An assessment of the challenges that lay ahead both before and after the deadline is a critical step for any public safety agency that’s behind schedule.
What’s Needed and How to Get It
Jurisdictions unprepared for narrowbanding should first hire a consultant or ask the local LMR vendor to determine what equipment needs adjustment, Furth said. Necessary changes may go beyond buying and installing new radios or reprogramming existing ones, explained Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust. Municipalities need to install additional base stations and towers because a narrowband channel doesn’t cover as wide an area as a wideband channel. Without additional infrastructure, switching to narrowband could leave some sections of a jurisdiction without LMR functionality. And adding that infrastructure can be very difficult, McEwen said. “Base stations and towers are expensive, and people don’t like them.”
Getting community approval for those towers could involve a lot of bureaucratic hassles, depending on the areas affected, said John Powell, chair of NPSTC’s Interoperability Committee. Infrastructure installed during the mid-1990s and before, however, likely won’t be affected since jurisdictions in those days tended to install more capacity than needed, so equipment could be sufficient for full coverage in narrowband-mode. Success, Powell said, would depend largely on how effectively a radio frequency engineer recommended extending and tilting existing antennas. Any governments wanting to implement those recommendations using internal staff should start with just one antenna and test it thoroughly, he insisted. While recommendations from an engineer usually look like they’d work on paper, Powell said problem areas are frequently revealed during implementation. The engineer may need to do revisions before the municipality rolls out the full redesign. Governments without a narrowbanding vendor may be running out of time to find one.
McEwen and others fear that if too many jurisdictions wait much longer, there may not be enough product and technical assistance on the market to transition all jurisdictions before the deadline hits. After securing an appropriate vendor, the next step is to begin the funding request processes. The FCC cautions that persuading legislators to fund the proposals can be difficult, so it would be beneficial to emphasize the mandatory nature of the FCC’s rule.
An agency that hasn’t already started its budget proposal probably must wait for next year’s funding cycle, Powell said, since local budget proposals must usually be submitted before July when most budgets begin. Jurisdictions that don’t get funding until July 2012 will have only six months to finish with the January 2013 deadline looming. Given the scarcity of local tax dollars, the FCC said many jurisdictions will likely need supplemental grants, but the agency doesn’t offer them. Instead, it points to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where leads on grants can be found at fema.gov/grants. The Web page includes application instructions, answers to common questions and a drop-down menu of states for finding local inquiry phone numbers. Jurisdictions can also e-mail grant inquiries to the DHS’ Office of Emergency Communications at email@example.com. Other opportunities exist for funding beyond the DHS, Furth said.
“We’ve been working with the Department of Agriculture because they have a lot of programs for rural development that can be used for a variety of purposes,” he said. “It turns out that one of the purposes is to help with public safety.” Furth also recommended approaching the Agriculture Department about grants, though he cautioned that such grants are tough to come by, so localities may want to look at ways to reduce costs. One option is purchasing any discounted equipment they can through state contracts.
Before deployment, a locality must complete the FCC’s frequency coordination process. This ensures that the new narrowband frequency coordinates with frequencies used by other localities. The International Association of Fire Chiefs and International Municipal Signal Association are available to help with this process. Both organizations are certified public safety frequency coordinators and are recommended by FCC Narrowbanding Mandate: A Public Safety Guide for Compliance. The document says that in many cases, licensees’ new narrowband systems will operate on the same frequencies their prior systems used in wideband-mode, just with a narrower channel bandwidth. The license modification process should be fairly simple in those cases, the document said. If a jurisdiction is seeking to license additional channels, success will depend on channel availability and a satisfactory demonstration of need, the document went on to explain.
Life After Deadline
Given that some portion of the country will be in violation of the narrowbanding deadline after Jan. 1, 2013, public safety officials are likely wondering what will happen next.