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Narrowband Mandate Looming: What You Need to Know

In 2006, I wrote an article for Firehouse Magazine about a mandate that has been in place for 20 years on the issue of narrowbanding for the radio spectrum. Over the last several years it has been highly publicized in every national public safety publication.

Today, we are literally months away from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) narrowbanding mandate which will take effect on Jan. 1, 2013. For those that have not heeded the information and warnings, the FCC has made it very clear that they plan to enforce the narrowband mandate.

The FCC advises that affected licensees have two choices to remain in compliance: make the transition to narrowband technology or get a waiver from the FCC. The commission has detailed the conditions for waiver approval, one of which takes into account when a waiver application is filed. Time is of the essence and the FCC has sent a very strong message that in order to obtain a waiver, a request will need to meet in a timely fashion - yesterday. The FCC further stated that waiver submissions near the deadline are may not be granted.

The FCC is gearing up its enforcement bureau for those affected licensees that fail to narrowband and do not obtain a waiver. In 2013, all radios in the identified radio spectrum bands are mandated to meet the FCC narrowband requirements.

What is Narrowbanding & What is Affected

What is narrowbanding? Without getting too technical, it simply means that the spectrum on which many of us operate will be split in half. The general reasoning behind this is to create more frequency capacity from that which already exists. The net result is a doubling of radio spectrum in these identified bands.

The impact comes in how our radios operate. Older radios that were certified before February 14, 1997 may not have the capability of narrowbanding while those certified after February 14, 1997 were required to meet this narrowbanding mandate. This affects transmitters and mobile radios alike.

While the narrowbanding/refarming of frequencies has been on the books for several years, it has perhaps been far enough away that many public safety leaders have forgotten about this standing FCC mandate. The spectrum bands that are affected:

  • VHF: 150 -174
  • UHF: 421 - 430: available only in Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland
  • UHF: 450 - 470: available nationwide
  • UHF: 470 - 512: shared with UHF-TV; available only in 11 cities

Some things that you need to know: 

  • The narrowbanding mandate is not optional
  • Understanding the situation and planning appropriately may allow for migration to be done in a gradual way
  • Narrowbanding is not the same as the 800 MHz rebanding. Rebanding is focused on eliminating present and future interference in that spectrum band that occurred because of interference between commercial and public safety frequencies. This interference created very dangerous and unpredictable communications problems for public safety.
  • Be cautious when purchasing older radio equipment to insure that you are buying more equipment that will have to be replaced as part of the mandate

Originally the T-Band spectrum was required as part of the mandate, recently the FCC exempted this spectrum range following the legislation for a nationwide public safety broadband network. T-band is in the UHF spectrum, 470-512 MHz, directly above the more commonly used UHF spectrum of 450-470 MHz. Originally, the T-band was used for TV channels 14 to 20, but because of channel congestion in the mid-1970s it was allocated to 11 major urban areas:

  • Boston
  • Chicago
  • Dallas/Ft. Worth
  • Houston
  • Los Angeles
  • Miami
  • New York/Northern N.J.
  • Philadelphia
  • Pittsburgh
  • San Francisco/Oakland
  • Washington D.C. metropolitan area

What Do We So?

First is to become fully aware of the situation by working with your manufacturer or radio maintenance shop to determine what proper equipment that you already have in place and identify all of the equipment that will need to be replaced.

What Needs to be Done?

Immediately determine if your organization/locality is narrowband compliant. In order to do this, you will need to work with your manufacturer or radio maintenance shop to determine what equipment that you have in place and identify all of the equipment that will need to be replaced.

  • Immediately apply for an FCC narrowband waiver
  • Take inventory and identify equipment that must be replaced
  • Identify the impact and the alternatives available
  • Develop a migration plan to strategically replace equipment
  • Inform/update elected and appointed officials and update them on the urgency and jointly develop a funding source to make this happen
  • Test the radios operating in the narrowbanding
  • This transition warrants testing of the new equipment to understand functional differences, especially when it comes to coverage and operation
  • Identify other organizations/agencies that are on the same system or operate in a mutual aid situation to ensure that narrowbanding is coordinated with them

Refarming of radio frequencies is also another result of rebanding which will allow for more efficient use of the radio spectrum.

Radio communications is critical to command and control and it is extremely important that all public safety officials become and remain aware of the changes that are ahead. Presently, there are a number of radio spectrum issues that are affecting or will affect public safety organizations. These issues include (but are not limited to) rebanding, narrowbanding, refarming and new radio spectrum communications proposals.

Additional Resources:

CHARLES WERNER, CFO is a 35-year veteran of the fire service and chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He serves on the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, Virginia Secure Commonwealth Panel, National Public Safety Telecommunications Council Governing Board and IAFC Communications Committee. Werner is chair of the IAFC Technology Council, first vice president of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and chair of the DHS SAFECOM Executive Committee. He recently was appointed to the FCC’s new Emergency Interoperability Response Council (ERIC) Public Safety Advisory Council.