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FCC mandate concerns businesses: licensees must narrowband their systems by 2013 or face fines, loss of license.

Government and private users of very high frequency and ultrahigh frequency two-way radio communication systems have until Jan. 1, 2013, to get on the narrowbanding train, or their licenses could get pulled. The requirement affects a wide variety of operations in Alaska, including public safety, resource extraction and transportation.

Narrowbanding is the Federal Communication Commission's term for reducing licensee's bandwidth usage on the radio frequency spectrum. This is achieved through efficiencies in technology. Under new rules, licensees must reduce their bandwidth use from 25 kilohertz to half that--just 12.5 kHz--by the deadline.

The purpose of the new standard is efficiency, according to the FCC's website: "The migration to 12.5 kHz efficiency technology will require licensees to operate more efficiently, either on narrower channel bandwidths or increased voice paths on existing channels. This will allow creation of additional channels within the same spectrum, thereby supporting more users."

Expensive Migration

But it's going to cost public and private dollars to reach the standard in time. The State of Alaska, for one, set aside $5.2 million in the enacted budget for FY 2013 in order to achieve narrowband compliance. The State, which uses the Alaska Land Mobile Radio infrastructure and system, approved funds for narrowbanding in four departments: Health and Social Services ($297,500), Natural Resources ($2.96 million), Public Safety ($1.47 million) and Corrections ($470,000).

ALMR is a federal, state and municipal partnership dedicated to: "Provide Alaskan public safety first responders with interoperable communications that are cost effective, reliable and adhere to national standards for public safety land mobile radio," according to its website (

"ALMR, since it's been installed is a narrowbanded operation," says ALMR Operations Manager Del Smith. "But the State of Alaska is narrowbanding a bunch of conventional frequencies around the state for various EMS and some other folks."

Conventional-type two-way radios are those that talk directly to each other, without using radio communications infrastructure, such as signal repeaters in the ALMR.

In the private sector, two-way radios are commonly associated with trucking. But they're also used for a wide variety of applications, including mining, oil and gas, cargo and port operations, and private security as well as transportation.

Don Lederhos, owner of radio communications company ARCTiCOM, says some of his clients don't need new radios to meet the standards; they just need a little reprogramming on the radios they already have--but others have radios so old they really do have to be replaced, he says. Lederhos recommends clients get digital equipment if they have to replace hand-held radios anyway, because, he says, digital is where FCC is ultimately going with licensing requirements.

Some of ARCTiCOM's clients are big enough that they use their own on-site repeaters, Lederhos says, and in that case the FCC narrowbanding mandate affects them in an additional way: It requires repeaters to have a reduced range, down from 100 miles in any direction, to just 20 miles in radius. In a case like that, narrowbanding an entire system is costing one of his clients around $350,000, Lederhos says.

Big Bucks for Small Biz

But for a small business, even several thousand dollars could be a big chunk of change. Dhana Kraus, owner of Big Foot Pumping and Thawing in Fairbanks, says her company is narrowbanding its fleet to the tune of $18,000 this summer.

"It's during our busy time," Kraus says, "so it'll mean some down time too."

Big Foot is a subscriber on radio communications company ProComm's network.

"It's definitely something that impacts our customers and our business," says ProComm system applications specialist Andrea Gilbert.

ProComm recently spent $150,000 upgrading its radio communications infrastructure to meet the narrowbanding mandate, Gilbert says, adding that the company expects to spend several hundred thousand dollars more on narrowbanding.

Gilbert says some ProComm customers are facing costs indirectly related to the narrowbanding mandate. Because the FCC will be reviewing two-way radio licenses for VHF and UHF frequencies after the deadline, she says, it's a good idea to make sure that everything on a company's license is updated and accurate, so the licensee isn't hit with violations.

Early Warning

The FCC is warning licensees they could face "admonishment, fines or loss of license," if they don't meet the narrowbanding mandate by the deadline--but a number of Alaska licensees, when contacted to interview for this story, said they had never heard of the FCC narrowbanding mandate.

In fact, the mandate and deadline was news even to Aves Thompson, president of the Alaska Trucking Association, who said the issue wasn't really "on the radar" for the trucking industry in Alaska.

"That is a problem," Lederhos says. "We've sent notices to every one of our customers. But you know how that works. People see it and think, 'Oh, I'm looking for the bill,' and they throw everything else away. So a lot of the businesses, nationwide, have not been paying attention to this, and they're going to get caught at the end of the year with a mad rush."

Gilbert says a report from Washington Radio Reports, a paid-subscription database of FCC licenses, showed there are 740 licenses in Alaska affected by the mandate that have yet to be narrowbanded.

A July 2011 press release from the FCC admonishes licensees not to wait until the last minute, comparing procrastinators with motor vehicle drivers who, upon seeing a sign indicating the road will be reduced from two lanes to one up ahead, either "ignore it, press the pedal to the medal and hope for the best," or "wait until the very last moment and then cut in front of the next car inches before the guard barrier."

But that's exactly what a number of licensees have done, and some of them have submitted requests for waiver of the deadline. The FCC, in its guidance for waiver applications, promises these "will be subject to a high level of scrutiny."

According to Gilbert, ProComm has been sending notices to its customers about the narrowbanding mandate since 2009. "Even now there's resistance because it's such a pain," she says.

Future T-Band Relief

But a bit of relief from that pain came for some two-way radio communications licensees on April 26 of this year, when the FCC released its decision that some users of UHF frequency are now exempt from having to meet the narrowbanding mandate and deadline.

In an odd twist, an obscure section of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 signed into law by President Obama on Feb. 22 forced the FCC to take a second look at a portion of the UHF spectrum, which currently ranges from 421-512 megahertz.

The act requires that a portion of the UHF spectrum, that ranging from 470-512 MHz, be privatized and open to a system of competitive bidding, within nine years of the act being signed into law.

That upper portion of the spectrum will, in the future, no longer be designated as UHF spectrum, but rather, be referred to as the T-Band spectrum.

Entities currently operating two-way radio licenses between 470 and 512 MHz would then, by law, be "relocated" to other channels on the spectrum.

According to the FCC order waiving mandatory narrowbanding for licensees operating in the future T-Band, not waiving the requirement for these entities "could force many licensees in the band to invest in narrowband systems that may subsequently have to be relocated."

Meanwhile, the order reads, the FCC has instituted a licensing freeze on new applications in the future T-Band.

That lets some off the hook. But most licensees won't be so lucky: they'll have to pay the costs of narrowbanding or pay the consequences.

FCC Narrowbanding FAQ

What is Narrowbanding?

Narrowbanding is an effort to ensure more efficient use of the VHF and UHF spectrum by requiring all VHF and UHF Public Safety and Industrial/Business land mobile radio (LMR) systems to migrate to at least 12.5 kHz efficiency technology by January 1, 2013.

More specifically, all existing Part 90 radio systems operating in the 150-174 MHz and 421-512 MHz bands have until January 1, 2013 to convert those systems either to a maximum bandwidth of 12.5 kHz or to a technology that provides at least one voice path per 12.5 kHz of bandwidth or equivalent efficiency.

What does Equivalent Efficiency mean?

Any of the following meet the 12.5 kHz equivalent efficiency requirement:

* One voice path in a 12.5 kHz channel

* Two voice paths in a 25 kHz channel

* Data operations on channels greater than 12.5 KHz must employ data rates greater than 4.8 kbps per 6.25 kHz channel, such as 19.2 kbps per 25 kHz channel

Does Narrowbanding require me to change frequencies or obtain new channels?

No. Narrowbanding does not require moving to another frequency band or different channels. Licensees stay on the same channel center(s), but reduce the bandwidth of the channel(s) currently used, from 25 kHz to 12.5 kHz and change the emission designator on the license. Alternatively, licensees may stay on the same 25 kHz channel but implement a 12.5 kHz equivalent technology on that channel.

If I currently have a license for a 25 kHz channel, will I automatically be entitled to license two 12.5 kHz channels after I Narrowband?

No. Your 12.5 kHz channel will remain on the same 25 kHz channel center. Your current 25 kHz channel will not be split into two 12.5 kHz channels. You will need to justify and apply for additional 12.5 kHz channels through a certified frequency coordinator.

Will I lose coverage area when I Narrowband?

It has been estimated that Narrowband compliance can result in a 3 dB loss in signal strength. However, this rule of thumb is based upon a "plain vanilla" Narrowbanding scenario where a 25 kHz analog system converts to a 12.5 kHz analog system. Consult with a manufacturer and/or consulting engineer for a better estimate of how Narrowbanding will affect your particular system.

Are governmental entities other than traditional public safety entities subject to the Narrowbanding mandate?

Yes. A partial list of the types of governmental entities that could be subject to the Narrowbanding mandate includes: Public Utilities-both traditional voice and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems; Schools (including school buses); Transportation Departments; Mass Transit Agencies; Community Watches.

In addition, licensees should remember to include the following types of radios in their Narrowbanding efforts: Cache Radios--Transportable Systems; Command Post/Communications Vehicles; Mutual Aid Gateways


Mary Lochner is a journalist living in Eagle River.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL SECTION: Telecom & Technology
Comment:FCC mandate concerns businesses: licensees must narrowband their systems by 2013 or face fines, loss of license.(SPECIAL SECTION: Telecom & Technology)
Author:Lochner, Mary
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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