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A précis on Narrowbanding

In certain cases, the FCC’s Narrowbanding mandate will mean the purchase of new radios, which many cash-strapped agencies will struggle to fund

If you haven’t yet heard the word Narrowbanding — referring to the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to create a more efficient use of existing radio spectrum — being bandied about in your department, you soon will.

Narrowbanding requires that all “Part 90” private and public Land Mobile Radio (LMR) two-way radio system licensees 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 or less). Furthermore, the FCC carries with it a hard and fast deadline of January 1, 2013, as well as stiff penalties for agencies and business entities which fail to hit that mark.

Despite years of advance warning and publicity — this process began a few decades ago, with what the FCC then had called “refarming” — many agencies have been slow to make the conversion. This is probably due in part to a confluence of agency inertia and diminished budgets, but regardless of the reason there must be some manner of resolution or those not in compliance will have some serious problems come January.

The Race is On
To get a better handle on some of the issues related to Narrowbanding, I recently connected with Ian Torok of BearCom, a leading provider of wireless communications equipment and solutions. Headquartered in Dallas, with 26 branches across the United States, BearCom provides high-performance two-way radio and other wireless communications solutions to public safety organizations as well as private industry.

Among the company’s customers are police departments from Long Beach (Calif.) to Lyndhurst (N.J.), and sheriff’s offices in Arizona, Kansas, and Arkansas, to name just a few.

“The FCC set forth its Narrowbanding initiative in 1992,” Torok explained. “The ultimate objective was to increase capacity and efficiency for the industrial/business and public safety radio pools in the private land mobile radio services category. Now, as the deadline approaches, the race is on.”

Torok told me that he’s seen real urgency this year, stemming from the FCC’s January 2013 deadline and the likely penalties many may face. “Two-way radio users who don’t make the switch face potential fines and even possibly the loss of their communication capabilities,” he said.

Just imagine that for a moment. It’s New Year’s Day 2013 and your radio is nothing more than a blunt instrument (or a low-velocity projectile). If that doesn’t spur your administrators to action, you may want to check to be sure they have a pulse. Of course, the process, which is essentially a Federally-mandated technology purchase for both public and private sectors, may come at a fairly high cost.

By way of example, Torok told me that the City of Dallas needs about $30 million to get into compliance. Pierce County (Wash.) is committing $18.65 million. Suburban Barrow County in Georgia needs $3.75 million.

“Totals in most other places are smaller, but the effects of the mandate are being felt across the country. Police in Brunswick, Ohio, spent $43,300; in Moonachie, N.J., it was $19,500. Centerville, Ohio, allocated $14,500,” Torok said.

Roadway Under Construction
“The VHF and UHF land mobile radio bands are so congested that often there is 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,” Torok said.

“Picture a four-lane highway jammed with traffic. If this 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.”

Of course, narrowing all those existing lanes in order to add several new ones in the same swath of spectrum requires a rather complex and detailed conversion process. This is precisely what is now being 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 new or modified FCC licenses.

The Good News
In certain cases, the FCC’s Narrowbanding mandate will mean the purchase of new radios, which many cash-strapped agencies will struggle to fund. The good news, according to Torok, is that many radios will not need replacement.

“Those purchased since 1998 may already have the ability to operate in both wide and narrowband modes. They will require only re-programming and re-licensing,” Torok said.

The other bit of good news? While replacing large numbers of radios is an investment, it’s one that can pay off when users upgrade to two-way radios with digital technology. Digital radios offer substantial improvements in capacity, security, audio quality, and coverage.

“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 widely available in two-way radios. Apps let organizations tailor radios to best meet their specific needs,” Torok concluded.

Sure, the FCC’s Narrowbanding mandate has caused consternation among many two-way radio licensees. But it also affords an outstanding opportunity to improve communications capabilities in such a way that will allow police organizations to ensure that their people are safer and more effective on the streets.

As this column posts to Police1, there are just 195 days remaining until the FCC’s January 2013 deadline. That may sound like a long time, but I’d challenge you to name the last technology solution your agency evaluated, purchased, and deployed — from start to finish — in just six months.

Yeah, I thought so. This will be a first for many of you. Good luck.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.