May 5, 2007 /

Who to Blame on the Public Safety Radio Mess

I have had some questions and comments about my post the other night regarding the radio frequencies that were utilized by emergency services. While most have just been wondering why this change in FCC rules ever came to being, I have had a couple emails telling me I am wrong, as well as go further […]

I have had some questions and comments about my post the other night regarding the radio frequencies that were utilized by emergency services. While most have just been wondering why this change in FCC rules ever came to being, I have had a couple emails telling me I am wrong, as well as go further and blame Clinton for it.

I want to go into more details of the downfalls of the new radio systems used by public safety. I was on a local fire department in the 80’s and early 90’s. Our town had a Motorola office located in our district, so we were one of the first fire departments in the nation to use this new system. I also had the convenience of growing up with a father who is a radio/electronic genius (he was offered to head up the FBI’s communication division in the 1980’s, but turned it down), so I have learned a lot about radio frequencies over the years, as well as worked in electronics repair. This put me in a key position when our fire department made the change in the 1980’s.

First off, I have dug into NewsBank to get an article regarding the changes. This article is from the January 12, 1987 edition of the Lexington Herald: 


Lexington Herald-Leader (KY)
January 12, 1987
Author: Deborah Mesce Associated

WASHINGTON — “Remarkable,” “amazing,” members of the standing-room-only audience whispered as they watched the first over-the-air broadcast of high- definition television. During the demonstration last week at Federal Communications Commission headquarters, displayed on a 50-inch screen, scenes from the 1984 summer Olympic Games made the same picture from a regular broadcast signal appear fuzzy and dull.

The demonstration was the latest move in a campaign by TV broadcasters to protect unused UHF frequency space.The FCC is considering signing over to other uses, such as mobile radios, space reserved for television broadcasts.

“This spectrum space should be preserved for TV broadcasters,” said John Abel, the executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters. “If this doesn’t happen, we’ll be shut out forever from being able to broadcast high-definition TV.”

The FCC is expected to act within the next several months on a proposal to assign UHF spectrum space to two-way mobile radios used by police and fire departments and delivery services in eight cities where space is running out.

“We’ve got to listen to them (TV broadcasters). We’ve got to look at the future and see what’s coming down the line. But I don’t think this is today’s decision. It’s tomorrow’s,” said James C. McKinney, the chief of the FCC’s mass media bureau.

McKinney noted that the level of high-definition technology today cannot deliver a signal to conventional TV sets.

“They’ve got to have compatibility first before they can hope to make a strong case for the spectrum,” McKinney said.Broadcasters say they have no doubt high-definition TV, called HDTV, will be well received by the American public, despite the initial high cost of special televisions to scan 1,125 horizontal lines — nearly twice the number in a conventional set picture.

“Every indication is that the public is interested in a high-quality signal, whether it is sound or video,” Abel said, citing the growth in sales of compact disc players, stereo television sets and high quality VCRs.

The technology could be available commercially from Japanese manufacturers within two years for videocassette recorders and a short time later for cable TV. Industry experts expect the price of receivers, initially expected to cost $2,000 to $3,000, to drop as demand grows.

Broadcast capability compatible with conventional televisions will take longer to develop, but broadcasters say the key will be the availability of spectrum space.

High definition requires more space on the spectrum than TV signals now use. Broadcasters say they will need the extra space on the UHF band.”It’s highly unlikely, probably impossible, to cram enough information into the current six megahertz channel to broadcast high definition,” which requires eight megahertz, Abel said.

Meanwhile, operators of two-way mobile radios are quickly using up their available frequencies in some areas of the country, which prompted the FCC to consider the spectrum sharing proposal.

“We’re not out of channels yet, but by the time the channels could be assigned the need would be there,” said Travis Marshall, a senior vice president at Motorola Inc., a leading mobile-radio equipment supplier.

The number of mobile radios is estimated to be nearly 10 million nationwide and growing by 8 percent to 10 percent a year, Marshall said.John D. Lane, a Washington lawyer who represents public safety agencies, makes the mobile-radio operators’ case for priority use of the airwaves, saying, “The Communications Act has a priority for public safety.”

“Public safety comes first, safety of lives and property. The commission has a duty to take care of public safety first, and not new television delivery services,” he said.

He disputes TV broadcasters’ claims that spectrum sharing with mobile radios, now being done in some cities, interferes with TV signals, and he says there should be plenty of room for both.

“We don’t see it as an either-or situation. Technology will help both sides make better use of the spectrum,” he said.

Edition:  FINALSection:  MAIN NEWSPage:  A1

Link (NewsBank subscription required)

While the FCC said that their first obligation was to public safety, that obligation wasn’t well thought out. They didn’t preserve the frequencies that served the public safety sector for years. Instead, they decided to move the public safety sector to new frequencies. Those frequencies are in the 800 MHz range, specifically the 849-869 MHz range.

Now this change has been slow in the making and a lot of smaller towns have not yet made it. This is mostly due to the cost. With this new frequency assignment came a new price tag. The new frequencies also came with new technology.

Prior to the change, public safety was placed in the same range as business radios (450 – 470 MHz). This didn’t cause a problem since the FCC would reserve enough of the spectrum in this range for public safety. Right after the 470 MHz range comes the range that UHF television is in (channels 13-83 on your TV). Since 1987, the television industry has been planning on taking over the lower ranges to offer their high-definition television.

As I pointed out the other night, there are major technological flaws to the new 800 MHz range for public safety. I associated it with the problems people have with cell phones. Now let me show you why with this frequency assignment breakdown:

824 – 849 MHz: cellular phones, A & B franchises, mobile phone
849 – 869 MHz: public safety 2-way (fire, police, ambulance)
869 – 894 MHz: cellular phones, A & B franchises, base station

As you see public safety is now nestled right in the middle of the cell phone range. Next time you drive around, think about how many cell phone towers you see. In order for this frequency range to work, it takes a lot more antennas. The public safety range uses a technology called trunking. The older systems you were always transmitting and receiving on the same frequencies (in public safety the is generally one to transmit and one to receive). Trunking systems actually constantly renegotiate for new frequencies in the same range. Instead of transistors and crystals, this requires computers and towers to tell everyone on a certain trunk “hey – you now need to go to 8**.** MHz”.

On 9/11 and during Katrina we saw a failure in communications because of this move. There are actually a couple of reasons for this. The first goes back to the old cell phone analogy. Think of how many times your cell phone drops it’s signal, while driving or in a building. The same applies to these new radios. Now you take a situation like Katrina, where a whole town is wiped out, you now get a larger problem. You have these “repeater” towers for the new radio system, that are the essentially like those cell phone towers. These towers require power to operate. In New Orleans, you had a lot of these power stations under water, so that severely limited the range of their new radios.

You also have the problem of costs. Prior to this change all public safety had to worry about was paying to keep the radios working. It’s bad enough that financially strapped towns now have to fork out for new equipment, but they also get monthly charges (You didn’t think companies like Motorola were going to run these new towers and software for free?). Instead of the paramedics buying new medical supplies, or the firefighters replacing worn out gear, they now get to fork out money to these radio companies. Since there is this cost, a lot of smaller towns have been late to make the change (and remember – this has been going on for 20 years now). This leaves a serious problem in mutual aid. If town A is on the new 800 MHz radio and they have a mass disaster, they might have town B called in to help (mutual aid). The problem is that town B hasn’t come up with the money yet to make the change, so now they have no way to communicate with town A.

This new system does have a potential to be good, but the FCC rushed into it. Instead of taking the time to develop a system that was more stable, the Reagan administration saw money coming out of the new deals. People will have to buy new devices to watch TV, businesses have to buy new radios and towns have to buy new radios and subscriptions for their new frequency. This change has shown us one of the worst sides of capitalism. The Reagan administration put television above public safety. No actual plan was implemented on funding this and now we have the communication disaster in public safety we see today. This is pretty bad that in 20 years we haven’t been able to work this out. Even worse is the fact we haven’t done anything to work it out since we saw the biggest threat of this problem on 9/11.

Perhaps someone in Reagan’s administration should have asked one simple question. Which do I want more – more television channels or someone to come when I call 911? The answer should be obvious and if asked might have prevented this mess we have. As usual with a Republican administration though, money trumped common sense.

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