LAS VEGAS — The FCC deadline for narrowbanding below 512 MHz is still more than three years away, but the prospect of a potential showdown between the federal agency and the New York Police Department (NYPD) already has been a hot topic of discussion among early attendees of the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE).

During a College of Technology session on narrowbanding Monday, an NYPD representative reiterated his organizations issues with the 2013 deadline. In short, the NYPD believes its communications future will be in broadband technologies, and the department does not want to spend valuable time and resources on narrowbanding when they could be leveraged to develop a new broadband system at 700 MHz (for more details, see A Big Voice in the Big Apple, this month's cover story of Urgent Communications). Of course, the NYPD does not have access to any 700 MHz broadband spectrum at the moment, but that's a subject for another day.

Certainly, NYPD is not alone in questioning the wisdom of narrowbanding. There are public-safety agencies throughout America that feel the same way, with many noting that the spectrum efficiencies gained through the massive project will increase system capacity but often will not make any more "new" spectrum available for use.

Still, the FCC established the 2013 deadline in 2004 and made it clear throughout the prior decade that private networks below 512 MHz would have to move from 25 kHz channels to 12.5 kHz channels. In other words, this should not be a surprise to any licensee that has been paying attention — a fact noted by Monday's panelists, who expressed doubt that the FCC would consider extending its narrowbanding deadlines.

If the FCC doesn't extend the deadline, this leads to several potentially intriguing scenarios. If the NYPD complies with the narrowbanding mandate, it — and many other public-safety agencies across the country — likely would have to put any 700 MHz plans on hold for some time, as local elected officials are not going to want to fund a new network after just paying for an upgrade on the existing system, particularly in this economy.

If the NYPD does not comply with narrowbanding, what would the FCC do? While it could revoke the department's license, most industry observers privately believe that is not a practical option. The notion of any public-safety entity being without communications is a frightening one, but that is especially true of the NYPD, which faces massive amounts of criminal activity on a daily basis, along with the always looming responsibility of being the first responders in the No. 1 terrorist target in the U.S.

Furthermore, politics could come into play. Let's face it, the NYPD is not just a public-safety agency, it has become arguably the biggest law-enforcement brand in North America — not just because of its actual deeds in high-profile cases from the Son of Sam investigation in the 1970s to 9/11, but because it's probably served as the backdrop to more hit TV shows and movies than just about any entity in history. And, of course, the NYPD resides in the media capital of the U.S., which means anything it does could become an instant national news stories.

With this in mind, would the president and members of Congress support the FCC if it decides to hold firm and punish the NYPD for not meeting the narrowbanding deadline via license revocation or even fines? Remember, the narrowbanding deadline just happens to be less than two months after the next presidential election, and I suspect network news crews would have a field day debating the subject if the NYPD where even threatened with enforcement action by the FCC.

Meanwhile, if the FCC or other federal officials indicate any wavering on the 2013 deadline that could undermine the entire narrowbanding effort. As mentioned before, other public-safety agencies also are questioning the relevance of narrowbanding, and virtually all of them are facing tough budgetary times in this down economy. If the FCC shows any leniency with NYPD, the rest of the nation's first-responder agencies could be up in arms overnight, claiming unfair treatment.

Or, they may simply wait and not proceed with narrowbanding until the FCC clearly demonstrates its intent regarding enforcement action. After all, several agencies took that stance with 800 MHz rebanding until it became clear that it was a mandate, not an option.

Either way, the sooner this can be addressed, the better, as dispelling uncertainty in the industry is important. If the FCC — and the stance of the entire federal government — is not made clear early, the matter could become a firestorm during the 2012 election year.

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