I received a phone call last week from Senior Writer Donny Jackson, who was hustling about the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials winter conference. He told me of a conversation he had with a communications official from a major East Coast city police department. What the official said, if true, should send a shiver up the spine of everyone at the FCC.

According to Jackson, the official said that there virtually is no way that the department will meet the commission's Jan. 1, 2013, deadline to migrate its radio system from 25 kHz-wide channels to 12.5 kHz-wide (or equivalent) channels. (This mandate affects every radio system operating below 512 MHz, with only a couple of exceptions.

The official told Jackson that the work itself isn't all that complicated, and that if it could shut down its system completely, the department probably could get it all down in a month. Of course, a police department can't shut its radio system down for 30 seconds much less 30 days, so the work will need to be done in dribs and drabs. That will lengthen the process exponentially, as it did for the reconfiguration of the 800 MHz band, which is only 50% complete — nearly two years past the FCC's original deadline for completion.

That's bad enough, but it is nowhere near as vexing as another problem the official divulged. He told Jackson that he is fearful that the interoperable communications his department currently enjoys with neighboring agencies immediately will go out the window when his department completes its narrowband migration. That's because his city is surrounded by much smaller burgs that he believes won't have the financial wherewithal to execute their own migrations. In an economic era marked by declining tax revenues and strapped municipal budgets, the official wonders whether these smaller entities will be able to upgrade to equipment that's compatible with the system his city ultimately will choose. I wonder how many other departments across the country that operate radio systems below 512 MHz will find themselves in a similar position.

These not only are legitimate questions, they are vital questions. And the FCC needs to address them sooner rather than later. Public safety traditionally has found interoperability to be an elusive creature. Unless the commission determines whether a solution to this potential dilemma is needed — and what it should be — interoperability stands to become even more difficult to pin down.

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