June 20, 2012The Federal Communications Commission will be handing out a $10,000 fine to public safety and business/industrial land mobile radio operators who fail to switch to narrowband frequencies by Jan. 1.
FCC officials began the process of narrowbanding, also called "refarming," almost two decades ago. The narrowbanding mandate as it is will allow for a more efficient use of radio bands. It will also help unclog some of the congestion that has built up and create more channel viability and, thus, availability for pubic safety systems.
The mandate states that licensees with systems that utilize channels between 150 and 174 MHz and 421 and 512 MHz switch to 12.5 kHz (narrowband) or a technology that achieves comparable efficiency.
Larry Allen, director of the Crawford County Emergency Management Agency, believes the county still has plenty of time to make the switch and is taking steps to ensure its compliance with the new regulations.
"Some of our radios are technologically capable of being narrowbanded and some are not," Allen said. "The ones that are capable we're going to set up a one- or two-day time period and we're going to get a radio person up here to do all the county's radios that need reprogrammed done."
Allen said there are about 60 such radios countywide that can be narrowbanded.
"The technicians can do four in an hour," he said. "So, it's not going to take long to do it. It's just a matter of getting them in and getting it done."
Back in 2004, the FCC issued an order requiring all public safety organizations and business/industrial licensees in the 150 to 174 MHz (VHF) and the 421 to 512 MHz (UHF) band to move toward narrowband, with a complete turnover to narrowband happening in early 2013.
"This does not affect the 800 system," Allen said. "The 800 system is the modern system; they're all computer assisted."
With less than one year left before the permanent switch, those public safety organizations and businesses that haven't made the switch or taken initial steps to phase into the switch may begin feeling the heat.
Allen said he could talk to someone in Michigan from Marengo by using the 800 system because of the technology, which also allows for talk groups that cut down on interference.
"The whole reason behind this is to free up more frequency for cell phones," he said. "They're crunching them up."
It is important to meet the FCC deadline because, after Jan. 1, interference rules will no longer protect non-compliant systems and those systems could create a problem for those who have made the switch.
To encourage compliance, the FCC has announced it will fine violators.
"It could be $10,000 every time you key your mic," Allen said. "I don't think the FCC is going to come to Crawford County and wait for some firefighter to key his mic, but we still have to comply."
Also, wideband equipment won't be available after the mandatory switch date. Extension waivers and non-compliance waivers are available upon request but are not generally given unless the circumstance is one that is unique.
It can be a costly transition for departments, as each new radio can cost upward of $500.
"Milltown fire department bought all new radios and all new pagers because none of theirs would reprogram," Allen said.
The new equipment cost the department tens of thousands of dollars.
"There probably was grant money three years ago," Allen said. "About any time the federal government mandates something, they provide money for it. There's still some out there, but right now there's nothing out there to help us before the end of the year."
The county will pay to transition its radios to the narrowband system while the fire departments and Emergency Medical System will utilize their own budgets.
Allen said the county is hoping to have the switch made by September.