In almost two decades of covering local school boards and city halls, I witnessed all forms of politics, policies and philosophies. But every local elected official I ever encountered agreed on one thing: They all hated unfunded mandates from state and local governments that robbed them of budgetary flexibility. This was especially the case if local officials perceived little — if any — tangible benefit that the mandated action would provide to their communities.

An example of an unfunded mandate is the FCC's narrowbanding requirement, which dictates that LMR systems operating below 512 MHz transition from 25 kHz channels to 12.5 kHz channels by Jan. 1, 2013. It should be noted that the FCC provided network operators with plenty of notice — the agency broached the idea more than a decade ago — but the federal government has not provided any funding mechanism to pay for new equipment and engineering.

For entities with financial resources, narrowbanding may not be a big deal. The equipment has been on the market for more than a decade, so some entities that have been refreshing their systems on a regular basis in recent years have indicated that narrowbanding will not be as expensive or time-consuming as some communications directors feared originally.

However, there are many more systems that will require a substantial overhaul and no identifiable way to pay for it. At this year's IWCE, one attendee spoke of a rural county that needs $30,000 to narrowband its one-site system but only has an annual communications budget of $300.

Some potentially good news for such public-safety entities was released recently, as National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) officials have confirmed that Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant money can be used to buy equipment for narrowbanding if the expenditures "align with a state or territory's previously proposed and approved PSIC investments."

Exactly how much PSIC grant money — initially a $1 billion nationwide program funded with proceeds from the FCC's 700 MHz auction — is available in each state or territory is something that local agencies need to check before investing time and money in the application process, but at least it's a financial alternative for cash-strapped agencies.

Hopefully, NTIA and the states will work to streamline the application process as much as possible to make the PSIC money attainable for those agencies that need the financial aid the most. Meanwhile, federal officials need to consider providing local entities with other financial sources to help pay for this mandate, if they want the spectral-efficiency to be implemented nationwide.

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