After the FCC effectively disposed of most 2011 deadlines regarding narrowbanding of systems operating below 512 MHz, many public-safety agencies breathed a big sigh of relief. Concerns about possibly having to buy replacement radios that work on 25 kHz channels off of eBay — a scenario that had been discussed by many in the industry — immediately were dismissed, and the sector was given the ability to concentrate on the Jan. 1, 2013, deadline.

At that time, current FCC rules will call for most public-safety systems operating below 512 MHz to move from 25 kHz channels to 12.5 kHz channels, a move that is being mandated to improve spectral efficiency in the bands. Officials for the FCC and all major public-safety organizations have expressed the importance for the 2013 deadline to be met by all agencies, noting that the need to narrowband has been known for the better part of a decade and that enabling equipment has been on the market even longer.

For this reason, narrowbanding is not that big of a deal for some entities. One official for a metropolitan city in the western U.S. told me he was worried about narrowbanding initially, but the fact that almost all radios in his system already are capable of operating on 12.5 kHz means the process should be more of a nuisance than a nightmare.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case across the board. For many small public-safety entities — for instance, volunteer fire departments —that have annual budgets in the hundreds of dollars, the idea of spending five-digit figures on narrowband equipment to replace systems that work fine now is far from ideal. In some cases, finding that kind of money in difficult economic times may be virtually impossible.

On the other end of the scale, there are huge entities like New York City that would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to meet the narrowbanding mandate. This reality is particularly frustrating, because New York City officials would rather direct such substantial financial and manpower resources to the buildout of a proposed broadband network that officials hope will one day carry mission-critical voice, as well as deliver high-speed data applications.

But mission-critical voice over LTE almost certainly will not be ready by 2013 deadline. Some in the industry believe it could ready within a year or two of the 2013 date, while others believe it will be at least another decade before public-safety agencies would feel comfortable deploying the technology.

For this reason, most industry observers believe that New York City — and possibly Boston, which is in a similar situation — eventually will ask the FCC for a waiver that would allow it to continue operating on 25 kHz channels until it can make the transition to mission-critical voice-over-broadband networks.
It would be a legitimate request, given the circumstances. Why spend huge amounts of money and time retrofitting old LMR networks when those resources could be used to help make FCC’s vision for public-safety broadband a reality?

But the problem for federal regulators is that, if New York City is granted a narrowbanding waiver, what does the FCC say to governmental entities that lack even a fraction of the budget New York has to address this unfunded mandate? Making budget-strapped rural agencies adhere to the 2013 narrowbanding date while granting a waiver to the nation’s largest and wealthiest city likely would create a firestorm. And those who want to interoperate with New York City likely would be among the first in line to ensure that they can continue to use 25 kHz equipment.

Of course, all of this is just speculation at the moment, because no one has sought a narrowbanding waiver yet. And, if New York seeks a waiver, the FCC could grant it on the condition that New York has a plan to make the transition to broadband. It’s a defendable position, but it’s also one that could open a massive can of worms on the narrowbanding front.

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