After months of whispers and industry hand-wringing over a new standard for intrinsically safe portable radios that would require massive redesigns of many LMR systems, multiple key organizations publicly have expressed concern in the last week over the FM Approvals 3610 standard that is scheduled to become effective in less than 14 months.

Thankfully, it appears that the protests of the industry have not fallen on deaf ears, as officials for FM Approvals yesterday proposed delaying implementation of the new intrinsically safe standard, which LMR manufacturers have claimed will reduce the output power of LMR portable radios significantly. This power reduction effectively would create coverage gaps throughout LMR networks unless new tower sites and in-building repeaters were added to existing networks, according to industry sources.

Although the new intrinsically safe standard was approved early this year, these issues regarding the output power for handheld units was not publicized until this summer, largely because the FM Approvals 3610 standard does not mention power limitations directly. However, when manufacturers began researching footnote references to other industry standards cited in the FM Approvals document, they discovered that portable units effectively would be limited to a less than a watt — most believe a half watt — instead of the multiwatt output enjoyed by many LMR devices today.

Of course, such a reduction in the power output of LMR portables would have a massive impact on the industry.

Coverage from LMR towers would not change, but decreased handset power would mean those portable units would not be able to communicate back to a tower in some locations. In particular, signals from portable users in buildings would have a much more difficult time reaching existing towers.

These issues could be resolved, but it would require the deployment of more towers and repeaters, which costs money — something that both government and private-sector LMR users simply don’t have in excess in a very tough economic times. And anyone who has tried to get permission to install a new tower sites knows what a difficult, expensive and time-consuming process that is.

Even for those entities that might be fortunate enough to have the funds necessary to make the necessary changes, the Jan. 1, 2012, effective date promised to be onerous, because no U.S. LMR manufacturer is producing handsets in this country that would comply with the new intrinsically safe standard. If time for budgeting and procurement are included, it would be virtually impossible for LMR operators to make a transition to intrinsically safe equipment by 2012 simply from a logistical standpoint.

Other timing aspects of the new intrinsically safe standard also promised to be frustrating. Think of all of the money and effort nationwide that has been devoted — or is about to be devoted — to 800 MHz rebanding, narrowbanding of LMR systems operating below 512 MHz, and to the deployment of new P25 systems. Billions of dollars and countless man hours have been spent on these initiatives, and all of that work effectively would have to be redone to meet the new intrinsically safe guidelines.

While industry manufacturers were aware of these problems, they were reluctant to speak about it openly. After all, no company wants to be associated with statements indicating that their new systems and gear no longer is considered intrinsically safe.

Fortunately, the concerns raised recently by the Enterprise Wireless Association (EWA), the Land Mobile Communications Council (LMCC) and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) are being heeded. FM Approvals officials yesterday expressed support for delaying the effective date for implementing the new intrinsically safe standard and the re-opening of a new standards review process.
These encouraging words should allow the LMR industry to catch its collective breath, but there is a long way to go before it can breathe a sigh of relief. The standards that need to be changed are not controlled by FM Approvals, so the LMR sector will have to make its case before other standards bodies and hope to get a sympathetic ear.

Meanwhile, the FM Approvals willingness to delay implementation of the effective date of the new intrinsically safe standard — something that would allow existing LMR equipment to be sold for years — comes with a substantial caveat: manufacturers would not be allowed to update designs of their equipment after Jan. 1, 2012, and still be deemed intrinsically safe unless a new standard is in place. Such a “technology freeze” may be tolerable for a few months or even a year, but how eager will users be to invest in systems that cannot be advanced technologically if it takes years to establish a new standard?

The bottom line is that many of the core users of LMR systems work in dangerous environments and deserve to use communications equipment that is certified as being intrinsically safe. With this is mind, it is imperative that industry groups and standards bodies work quickly to establish a new standard for intrinsically safe radios as quickly as possible, so systems can be designed to ensure that LMR users are able to do their jobs effectively and safely.

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