Radio Interference: A Public Safety Perspective

Over the past several years, a radio interference problem has presented itself as a dangerous situation for all public safety agencies that are using or are migrating to 800 MHz radio systems.

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

The problem is that 800 MHz public safety radio systems (even those that have gone through full acceptance testing), suddenly and WITHOUT WARNING no longer work in specific areas.

NOTE: Public radio systems outside of the 800 MHz frequency spectrum are NOT affected.

HOW SERIOUS IS THE PROBLEM?

The problem is very serious because interference will continue to occur as new 800 MHz public safety radio systems are installed and as more commercial wireless systems expand. To date, over 1,000 reports of interference have been documented. In 2003, over 350 locations reported interference problems (the highest number of reports in any given year).

At a Public Safety event in Washington, D.C., International Association of Fire Chiefs President Ernest Mitchell stated, "The problem of radio interference at the 800 megahertz level is serious. Thankfully, by our measure no one has died as a result of this interference. However, it's only a matter of time since - and probability that some fire fighter or police officer will have a radio go dead at a critical moment and his or her life will hang in the balance." Additionally, Harlin McEwen a representative for the International Association of Chiefs of Police said, "These interference incidents are growing. We now have over 1,000 incidents reported in over 34 states and we know that the problem is not getting any better. Dropped calls and garbled radio messages, blocked messages are serious. When a police officer can't call for help, or a fire fighter needs help and can't get his radio to work, that's a serious business and we want people to understand that this is not something to take lightly."

WHAT CAUSES THE INTERFERENCE?

Unfortunately it has occurred by unforeseen technological characteristics and resulted even though every company involved is doing everything required by law. In simple terms, interference is caused by an intermodulation problem between commercial wireless vendors and 800 MHz public safety radio systems both of which are within the 800 MHz spectrum.

EXPLANATION OF INTERFERENCE

First, the co-location of commercial wireless vendors and public safety radio systems within the 800 MHz radio spectrum is where the problem begins. Often the two systems frequencies are too closely positioned within the 800 MHz radio spectrum. Unfortunately, there is no where to move public safety radio frequencies as the spectrum available to public safety has been exhausted.

To broaden the explanation, public safety radio systems traditionally work off of high power transmitters on high towers on mountaintops (high power, high tower) while commercial wireless vendors operate on low power transmitters on low towers (low power, low tower). The new problem occurs as the signal from our high towers converges upon the new low tower signals from the commercial wireless vendors (which sit between the public safety high towers and its units). At this point, it changes the public safety frequency to a range that will no longer work in a specific (unknown) geographic area. This can happen when there is a change to the commercial wireless system (added frequencies) or when a new commercial tower is built (as systems expand).

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?

A couple of years ago, a plan was brought forth that recommended a rebanding of 800 MHz frequencies called the Consensus Plan (CP). In a cooperative effort, many of the nation's largest public safety organizations have expressed their support including the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), National Sheriffs Association (NSA), Association of Public Safety Communications Officers-International (APCO) and many more.

In essence, the CP is designed to place public safety radio frequencies together and away from commercial wireless frequencies thus eliminating radio interference (from this situation) once and for all. The plan provides funding so that public safety agencies will not be burdened with the cost of any retuning or equipment replacement to accomplish the rebanding. Nextel has provisioned $850M toward this cost. The national public safety organizations have validated that this is a valid dollar amount to accomplish this task.

It is important to note that when these problems were identified and public safety approached many commercial wireless vendors, Nextel stepped up to the plate while others waited in the wings until now.

If you wish to learn the specifics about the CP, visit www.ProjectConsensus.org.

WHAT STANDS IN THE WAY OF THE SOLUTION?

Needless to say, there are opponents to the CP. Not surprisingly, those opponents are competitors of Nextel. Their main concern is that the CP will create an unfair competitive advantage for Nextel. There has been arguments over this ad nauseum. The bottom line for public safety is that the problem be resolved with finality.

In a letter to the editor, IAFC Executive Director Garry Briese stressed the following points, "In response to Michael S. Gerber's "Spectrum battle splits wireless firms" (March 25), we'd like to offer a few points from the perspective of the public safety community.

The article focuses on the efforts of CTIA [Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association], Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless, which have approached the resolution of dangerous public safety radio interference at 800 MHz as a competitive matter without regard to the needs and interests of our nation's first responders.

Until recently, these same organizations continuously and vigorously opposed any form of rebanding in favor of after-the-fact remediation, akin to the arcade game of Whack-a-Mole as it moves from hole to hole. And now they are proposing another unrealistic plan that aims to further delay resolution by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The pubic safety community has worked cooperatively with private wireless organizations and Nextel Communications to develop the only solution that solves this life-threatening problem, is fully funded and provides much needed additional spectrum for public safety - the Consensus Plan. Rep. Curt Weldon, himself a former fire chief, recently sent a letter signed by 43 members of Congress to the FCC that calls for a proactive solution to interference that realigns the 800 MHz spectrum and provides additional infrastructure to public safety agencies at no expense to the American taxpayer. There is only one plan that meets these requirements - the Consensus Plan.

In an attempt to prevent the CP from being successful, the opponents proposed the Balanced Approach Plan (BAP). This plan is basically a reactive plan similar to what exists today. The plan states that while the CP may take several years, the BAP can be implemented within 60 days. I would argue that there plan could essentially be implemented tomorrow since it does nothing more than what is already being done. The time it takes to implement a program often speaks to the amount of effort required to accomplish it.

The opponents further argue that Nextel will be awarded 1.9 GHz radio spectrum is a windfall for Nextel. This radio spectrum is necessary to make the rebanding effort successful as it serves as a buffer or "green space".

The opposition to the Consensus Plan is certainly based on money and company positioning. It has nothing to do with a concern for public safety.

In a late development on April 8th, Verizon released a statement that if the 1.9 GHz spectrum were to be auctioned it would make an opening bid $5 billion for it. This, however, does not legally bind them to doing just that. Speculation would also suggest that the purpose of this offer is to weigh in on one of the FCC Commissioners who is considering auctioning the frequencies. This latest action by Verizon does reinforce several thoughts. First, that Verizon has the money to help solve the problem but has made no offer to do so. Second, it indicates that Verizon and other opponents will stop at no expense to lay the CP to rest. Third, that Verizon sets public safety aside for the almighty dollar. Fourth, it would appear that Verizon is trying to set themselves up as the lone bidder for the 1.9 spectrum (with Nextel paying for retuning, Cingular and AT&T Wireless tied up with their $41 million dollar merger and Sprint already utilizing 1.9 space).

WHO SUPPORTS THE CP?

This list is very long and too long to list here. To see a complete listing of supporting agencies, individuals, elected officials, please visit... http://www.consensusplan.org/plugin/template/consensus/144/*

GLOOM, DOOM AND SCARE TACTICS

Be afraid, be very afraid - that's what the opponents to the CP would like to instill in the hearts and minds of public safety agencies. Here are some of their points...

  1. The $850 estimated cost of rebanding is drastically underestimated. According to the IAFC, APCO and other national agencies this is an objective and realistic estimate.
  2. That public safety agencies will have to pay out of pocket, then go through a lengthy and tedious reimbursement process. Again, according to those involved, this process has not been outlined, as it would be premature but that the intent will be to determine costs for rebanding and have Nextel pay for it. Nextel has said publicly that it will pay these costs up front]
  3. That Nextel does not have the money. However, a filing on the FCC docket would prove otherwise as to the commitment and financial ability of Nextel to indeed cover the costs.
  4. They explained that the 700 MHz frequencies were soon to be released but according to the legislation, that will only occur when a specific percentage of viewers have switched to high definition television - which is not occurring.
  5. That litigation is imminent by everyone. Once again, threatening that if this action goes through, opponents say that they will litigate holding this up in the courts for many years. ONCE AGAIN, THIS THREATENED ACTION IS A DIRECT SLAP IN THE FACE OF PUBLIC SAFETY AGENCIES AND THE CITIZENS THEY SERVE.
  6. That the 1.9 GHz sought by Nextel in exchange for relinquishing spectrum at 800 MHz and elsewhere requires auctioning - when in fact, there is legislative precedent to suggest otherwise. Management of the radio spectrum and promotion of the public interest through provision for effective public safety communications services are fundamental powers of the Commission, 47 U.S.C.

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