I heard from Alan Tilles after last week’s column, in which I questioned whether the FCC would have the guts to shut down a public-safety communications system that misses the Jan. 1, 2013, deadline set by the commission to complete the narrowbanding migration. This mandate requires any licensee operating a system under 512 MHz to reconfigure the system so that it operates in 12.5 kHz-wide (or equivalent) channels from the current 25 kHz-wide channels.

I had suggested that there’s no way the FCC will shut down a non-compliant public-safety radio system, even one that is causing interference with a neighboring system that is in compliance, citing the outcry that liability exposure that would occur should a first responder or citizen be seriously injured or killed as a result of such a shut-down.

Tilles, an attorney who represents numerous public-safety entities, e-mailed me a few days ago to tell me that one of his clients, a county in the state of Florida, once had its jail radio system shut down by the FCC because it didn’t have a valid license. So, apparently, there's precedent for such an action. But I can't help but think there will be a big difference in perception between shutting down a county jail radio system and that of a police department.

(By the way, Tilles has put together more than six hours of narrowbanding content — working closely with conference coordinators Stacey Orlick and Cristina Cotto — that will be presented next month at IWCE 2010 in Las Vegas. I strongly urge you to book your flight now; if you’re involved in migrating your entity’s communications system, you’re not going to want to miss this comprehensive program. Also, Tilles is creating an online information clearing house dedicated to narrowbanding that will go live in about two weeks.)

I heard from several other readers on whether the FCC is likely to follow through on its shut-down threat. Here is a sampling of what they wrote (they have been edited for length):

“Can you imagine the liability exposure it would create for the federal government, if there was a loss of life caused by inability to communicate due to a non-compliant system causing interference and the FCC failed to do something about it —by ignoring its own rules?

“The FCC must protect the legal, compliant operations from interference by those that chose to become non-compliant.

“I doubt that the FCC will shut down non-compliant, non-interfering systems, but I do not think they will have any choice with non-compliant systems interfering into compliant public-safety operations.”

Here’s another:

“The FCC did its job and gave very adequate notice. Too often, we are allowing folks to learn they don't need to take the law seriously. Public-safety providers have to step up, do their respective jobs and provide what is needed. Don't ignore an issue for years and then expect to be exempted when many did what they were supposed to do."

And another:

“Unfortunately, you are wrong. The commission does indeed have a track record for shutting down errant public-safety radio systems — rather big ones at that. … Government officials have a responsibility to protect lives and property first. Without radio communications, there is no police, fire or emergency medical response. Officials need to consider the public backlash when forced to step before the TV cameras and explain why their mission-critical radios systems fell silent due to funding the wrong priorities."

And, finally:

“It's only a fiscal crisis if you wait until the last minute. Spreading the cost out over ten years is doable for any municipality.”

While I found all of these comments interesting and insightful, I’m still not convinced that the FCC is going to shut down any system — at least not right away. I do believe the commission is going to have no problem levying huge fines for non-compliance, and I agree with another reader who suggested that non-compliant systems that aren’t causing problems for anyone else will be given some slack.

But wondering whether the FCC will muster the fortitude to act on its threat is analogous to putting the cart before the horse. Actually, it’s more along the lines of positioning the cart before the horse is bought — or, better yet, before the farmer has scraped up the cash to buy the beast. The last two reader comments above hit upon this, and right now it’s the most pressing concern.

The FCC’s narrowbanding directive is an unfunded mandate — the worst kind. Yes, I know that the commission set the 2013 deadline back in 2003 and, as a several readers correctly pointed out, a decade should have been plenty of time for any public-safety agency to get its ducks in a row. But public-safety agencies have been under intense fiscal pressure for some time now, pressure that clearly has been ratcheted up over the past two years as the country sank into what has been described by many economists as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. I don’t care how well you’ve planned at this point — if the till is empty, then you’re in deep trouble.

So, the first thing that any agency needs to do regarding narrowbanding—well before figuring out what equipment needs to be reconfigured or replaced—is to figure out where they’re going to find the money for the project.

On Thursday, I will moderate a narrowbanding webinar featuring noted grant consultant Dr. Chris Gilmore of Gilmore-Tragus Strategies, who will tell you where to look for help and offer tips for getting your hands on the money. He’ll be joined by Ralph Haller, chairman of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) and Billy Carter, APCO Northern Illinois frequency advisor and Region 54 RPC chair, who will offer their insights regarding migration strategies. Also on the panel are Mark Crosby, president and CEO of the Enterprise Wireless Alliance, and Elizabeth Buckley, telecommunications licensing manager for Keller & Heckman LLP, who will discuss the licensing obligations related to the migration.

As moderator, I will do what I usually do, which is to try to stay out of the way of these experts. I urge you to participate in the webinar, which will give you the informational foundation you’ll need to fully benefit from IWCE’s amazing program in Las Vegas next month. I guarantee both will be time well spent.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.