Speaking this week at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials conference in Philadelphia, David Furth — deputy chief of the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau — cautioned operators of land-mobile-radio (LMR) systems operating at 512 MHz and below that the commission’s Jan. 1, 2013, deadline for narrowbanding those systems isn’t going to change.

“This deadline is out there, it’s in the commission’s rules and it’s not going to move,” Furth said.

Narrowbanding refers to the process of converting a system’s channel widths, from the current 25 kHz to 12.5 kHz, to facilitate more efficient use of available spectrum. The ultimate goal is 6.25 kHz-wide channels, but the FCC has yet to set a deadline for that.

ON-DEMAND WEBINAR: Narrowbanding: Funding, licensing and deployment

The FCC has stated often that it is prepared to enforce this rule, perhaps by fining non-compliant agencies or — in extreme cases — shutting them down.

“They also have to understand that, if they’re out of compliance, if they need something else — such as additional channels or some other type of regulatory relief — they could be in jeopardy for getting that, until they get themselves back into compliance,” Furth said during an interview with Urgent Communications after the session ended. “Plus, they’re going to have their neighbors to deal with.”

Furth acknowledged that some agencies may find it challenging to meet the deadline and that a waiver process is in place, but he said waivers will not be easy to obtain.

“The standard is going to be very high, very rigorous,” he said.
Furth advised any licensee contemplating the filing of a waiver to submit the paperwork by the end of the year. “The sooner the better, so that we’re not dealing with last-minute requests,” he said.

Any agencies that are in regional planning or interoperability arrangements should work together to bring the commission a coordinated narrowbanding plan, Furth said.

“If you do that, we will work with you,” he said.

To that point, Furth said that the FCC has been working closely with a plethora of federal partners — particularly those that might be able to provide grant money — and public-safety organizations to provide licensees the information, funding and technical assistance they need to complete narrowbanding.

“We’re trying to move beyond, ‘Here’s the deadline and you have to comply with it,’ to being proactive, so that we can get ahead of the curve,” Furth said. “We want to use the time that’s remaining to get as many agencies across the finish line as possible.”

Furth cautioned licensees to resist the temptation to submit “cookie cutter” waiver applications, noting that the commission’s rule requires waiver applicants to provide detailed “nuts-and-bolts” information regarding the specifics of how their systems operate and the environments in which they operate. Of particular interest to the FCC will be detailed analysis of how continued wideband operation will affect neighboring licensees.

“So, a cookie-cutter application isn’t going to meet that standard,” Furth said. “This is going to require a deep dive.”

He reiterated that any licensee waiting until the last minute to file a waiver application will be exposing itself to substantial risk, largely because the FCC may not be able to process the application before the Jan. 1, 2013, deadline.

“Our assumption is going to be that anyone who doesn’t have a waiver and is still operating a wideband system will be in violation of the narrowband order,” Furth said.

There may be some licensees planning to challenge the FCC’s resolve on the narrrowbanding deadline, because they are thinking that there is no way that the commission will shut down a public-safety communications system. But it has happened before, wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said.

“The FCC shut down a transmitter that the Santa Barbara County [Calif.] Fire Department had operated for three years — in the middle of fire season — because they had failed to apply for a license for that site,” Seybold said.

Alan Tilles, partner with Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker, who represents numerous public-safety agencies, said that he was told by the radio-systems manager for Brevard County, Fla., that the commission once shut down the county jail’s radio system because it was using an unlicensed frequency.

“If they shut down a jail, they will shut down anybody,” Tilles said.

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