FCC mandates force costly update for two-way radios

Sprint paying for switch to new frequencies to clear up interference

By Dave Larsen
Dayton Daily News

Thousands of public and commercial mobile radios in the Dayton area are being reprogrammed or replaced to meet federal mandates intended to reduce harmful interference to public safety communication systems and make more efficient use of radio frequencies.

The mandates affect all two-way radio system operators, including police, fire, hospitals, utilities, schools, and commercial manufacturing and business.

The estimated $2.8 billion cost of "rebanding," or moving public safety wireless radios in the 800 megahertz spectrum to new frequencies, is being funded by Sprint Nextel Corp.

Sprint Nextel will pay for the switch under a 2004 Federal Communications Commission order, according to a congressional report.

The FCC attributed most incidents of interference to public safety radio communications to "the network built by Nextel Communications," now Sprint Nextel, the report said.

A separate, unfunded edict requires U.S. businesses and public service agencies operating VHF and UHF radio systems at 25 kilohertz to migrate to a more efficient 12.5 kilohertz frequency at their own expense by Jan. 1, 2013. Users who fail to meet the deadline risk fines up to $112,500 or the loss of their Federal Communications Commission license.

The FCC said the change will increase the available spectrum in the VHF and UHF private land mobile bands.

"It is very similar to what the broadcast stations did a few years ago going from analog to digital," said Chris Hanes, sales manager for P&R Communications, a Day-ton-based wireless company with additional offices in Sidney and Toledo.

Hanes said the so-called "narrowbanding" affects anyone with a two-way radio license, particularly if they are using older equipment that is not capable of narrowband reprogramming. Those users will have buy new radios capable of operating in the narrower bandwidth, which range in price from several hundred dollars to $1,000, he said.

Rebanding will affect an estimated 40,000 U.S. public safety organizations that operate 800 megahertz wireless communications.

The result of rebanding will relocate the contiguous block of frequencies reserved for public safety, and create a separate contiguous block reserved for extended specialized mobile radio, primarily Nextel.

The FCC hired an independent transition administrator to coordinate the rebanding and payments to reimburse licensees for their costs.

Ensuring that the changes are made correctly is essential to public safety, officials said.

"When every single public safety agency in the entire United States moves frequencies at various times, you have to make sure that you are not overlapping frequencies with someone else," said Shawn Waldman, director of IT and radio communications for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office.

Montgomery County this week completed a five-year rebanding effort to move the more than 2,000 communications radios used by its public safety agencies and public service departments to new frequencies. The $155,000 cost of rebanding will be submitted to Sprint Nextel for reimbursement, Waldman said.

In Montgomery County, narrow-banding will affect some fire stations and tornado sirens still on VHF frequencies. "We really don't anticipate a large cost with narrow-banding," Waldman said.

The Dayton Daily News in January reported that the nonprofit Victoria Theatre Association had to replace relatively new wireless microphone systems at the Schuster Center because the federal government sold the broadcast frequencies they previously used.

The Preble County Sheriff's office used an estimated $500,000 in U.S. Department of Homeland Security grants over a five-year period to replace the county's "antiquated" communications infrastructure, Preble County Sheriff Michael Simpson said.

"If we had not planned ahead after 9/11 and re-done all this infrastructure ... it would have cost the county a big chunk of change," he said.

Preble County upgraded from a single radio tower in Eaton to a five-site simulcast system that enhanced coverage areas, eliminated dead spots and prepared the county for rebanding.

In February, P&R Communications rebanded Preble County's communications infrastructure and equipment, including 110 portable and mobile radios in Simpson's office. "We were done in a day," he said.

The cost of reprogramming is less than $50 per radio, Hanes said.

"Public safety has been more reprogramming because they have been up on that. Your local business is probably 50-50 from reprogramming to buying new," he said.

The FCC mandated narrow-banding in 2004, but local efforts have accelerated in the last two years.

"There are a lot of cities and counties that have had this in their plans for years that are either done or will be completed here by summer," Hanes said.

Dayton Public Schools upgraded during the 2010-11 school year to digital radios for school security resource officers and school buses, said Jill Moberley, a district spokeswoman.

"We made further upgrades this current year which allowed for distance and we also have GPS capabilities on our radios," she said.

Dayton-area hospital and medical responder radios will be rebanded in late summer, said Patricia Bernitt, vice president of finance and emergency medical systems for the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association.

Bernitt said radios remain important even though cellphones can be used at times for communications between first responders and hospital staff. 

Copyright 2012 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.

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