Homeland Security and Public Safety

Narrowbanding Is an Opportunity to Improve Communications

The FCC's narrowbanding mandate has government entities working to retool their two-way radio systems before the Jan. 1, 2013, deadline.

The narrowbanding mandate from the FCC has businesses and government entities working to retool their two-way radio systems in the face of stiff penalties and a Jan. 1, 2013, deadline.

The mandate states that all “Part 90” business, educational, industrial, public safety, and local and state government two-way radio system licensees currently operating legacy wideband (25 kHz) voice dispatch or data/supervisory control and data acquisition radio systems in the 150-174 MHz (VHF) and 421-512 MHz (UHF) bands must make the transition to the narrowband technology (12.5 kHz) by January.

The reason for the change is simple: The VHF and UHF land mobile radio bands are so congested that often there’s not enough spectrum available for licensees to expand their systems or implement new ones. Requiring licensees to convert their radio systems to operate on narrower channel bandwidths will allow additional channels to exist within the same spectrum. Picture a four-lane highway jammed with traffic. If the road can’t be widened, the only way to get more traffic on it is to make each lane narrower to make room for new lanes.

The urgency this year stems from the FCC’s deadline and the likely penalties. Two-way radio users who don’t make the switch face potential fines and possibly the loss of their communication capabilities.

For some, the task of reprogramming or replacing their older radios is so daunting that they are asking the FCC for waivers and extensions in order to avoid the stiff penalties for noncompliance. But waivers and extensions are far from automatic. And applying for an extension requires organizations to detail their narrowbanding efforts up to that point and commit to a new deadline.

Adding to the urgency is a rather complex and detailed conversion process that’s been undertaken all over the country. It requires an assessment of the current equipment, the development of budget and funding options, the establishment of a conversion schedule, and the securing of a new or modified FCC license.

Most radios won’t need to be replaced. Those purchased since 1998 may already have the ability to operate in both wide- and narrowband modes. They require only re-programming and re-licensing.

The latest two-way radios also offer an array of new features like texting, GPS capabilities and asset tracking that all lead to new levels of efficiency. And these days, applications aren’t limited to smartphones. They’re now widely available for two-way radios as well. Apps let organizations tailor radios to best meet their specific needs.

So while the FCC’s narrowbanding update has caused some consternation, it also affords an opportunity to improve communications so businesses can be more efficient and people can be made safer. 

Ian Torok is director of technical services for BearCom, a nationwide dealer and integrator of wireless communications equipment.