Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the 800 MHz reconfiguration process is the sheer operational complexity of public-safety radio networks across the country. Although these networks have evolved greatly over the last 10 years from a technology perspective, they typically are challenging to operate on a daily basis — let alone to fully retune base station infrastructure and mobile and portable radios.

Many of these networks serve not only multiple public-safety and public-service agencies within a jurisdiction, but they also support interoperable radio communications across the surrounding region. The requirement to maintain operational continuity inside and outside the jurisdiction is a major reconfiguration challenge.

Additionally, the reliability and operational quality of public-safety radio networks are critical communication requirements — literally a matter of life or death for all first responders. Direct access to the radio network and all radios throughout the rebanding program will be essential. The reconfiguration must consider myriad fundamental implementation requirements, including when the radio technicians and installers can have access to the radios for reprogramming, retuning and replacement of the subscribers' radio inventory. Public-safety radios are used on a daily basis by many agencies, and in the case of police cruisers are in operation around the clock. Consequently, ensuring uninterrupted operations during rebanding is extremely challenging.

Milwaukee County, Wis., certainly is one of the more complex 800 MHz radio networks to be reconfigured. The county uses a Motorola SmartNet II 800 MHz trunked simulcast radio system, which consists of nine base station sites with 14 analog frequencies each. First responders and public-service professionals in 17 of the 19 municipalities in the county use this system for both mission-critical and day-to-day communications. The network supports about 5400 active subscriber units and 69 user agencies. In addition, various regional, state and federal agencies also have equipment configured to use this system.

Milwaukee County currently has two levels of mutual aid to offer multiple-agency interoperable communications. There are four ICALL/ITAC repeaters distributed around the county, which also offers five talk groups configured on all subscriber units. These five talk groups, consisting of one hailing and four regular use groups, are used primarily for interagency events and offer an easy path to interoperability among regional agencies. In addition, the neighboring county of Waukesha has its subscriber units configured with these five talk groups.

The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is a primary user of the radio system. The MCTS currently operates an intelligent transportation system (ITS) and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems. These systems were designed around Motorola's Spectra two-way FM radio, a wideband, frequency-synthesized fixed-tuned mobile radio designed to operate in the 851-869 MHz band.

In addition to the ITS/CAD/AVL capability, the rebanding program affects two other in-vehicle components: the intelligent vehicle logic unit (IVLU) and the transit control head (TCH). The IVLU receives input from a global positioning system (GPS) antenna mounted on the roof of the bus to constantly monitor the bus's location and compare this information to previously downloaded route schedule information. The IVLU is programmed to automatically notify the dispatcher, via the radio system, of any anomalies should the driver be off route or off schedule. An additional feature tracks the bus's operating patterns, locating the vehicle in the event of an emergency.

“Milwaukee County, like many licensees throughout the country, has been diligent in its efforts to comply with the FCC's requirements,” said Steve Mokrohisky, senior program manager for the county's department of administrative services, information management services division.

“The reality is that the rebanding program has had — and will continue to have — a significant burden on public safety in terms of diverted resources and operational risk,” he said. “Given the cumbersome negotiation process and unrealistic timeline, there's no question the program will take longer than the FCC anticipated.”

Indeed, Milwaukee County, MCTS and Televate, the county's engineering consulting firm, have worked diligently on rebanding, completing their respective planning tasks in accordance with the Transition Administrator (TA) guidelines. However, an evaluation process determined that the Motorola Spectra radio used in the ITS/CAD/AVL system could not be rebanded and had to be replaced. Complicating matters, Motorola and other radio vendors currently do not manufacture a direct replacement for this unit. As a result, the county and MCTS, with approval from Sprint Nextel, determined that a formal request for proposal (RFP) was essential, in compliance with county procurement requirements, to determine the optimal solution and vendor to reband the intricate voice/data radio requirements of the MCTS system.

The county, MCTS and Televate spent six months identifying and prequalifying ITS/CAD/AVL vendors that could provide a solution for the MCTS system prior to receiving a rebanding planning funding agreement (PFA). The county, MCTS and Televate also continued their planning efforts within the TA's mandated guidelines. The functional specifications and the RFP were developed during the originally allocated 180 days for the PFA and completed on April 30.

According to new guidelines contained in an FCC order issued in September, once the PFA was executed the remaining planning activities were to be completed by Oct. 15. (See MRT, October 2007, page 6.) Then the ITS/CAD/AVL systems must be customized to MCTS operational requirements and formally procured, a process that typically takes three to six months to complete. Finally, the selected equipment vendor will require an additional 18 to 24 months to manufacture and implement the final system.

However, this realistic schedule does not at all fit the FCC's desired planning and reconfiguration schedule.

“We are concerned that the aggressive rebanding timetable cannot be realistically applied to Milwaukee County and various other rebanding [efforts] we are supporting,” said Solomon Tadesse, Televate senior partner and head of the company's rebanding division. “Most of our clients have complex radio systems that are integrated with their neighboring jurisdictions for interoperability. Our fundamental requirement is to ensure uninterrupted operations during all phases of the rebanding program.

“We are respectful of the FCC's desired program completion timetable, but we must balance the time to plan and reconfigure against the basic realities of the program management.”

The complexities of the Milwaukee County network clearly illustrate that there are no “standardized” rebanding scenarios. The county, MTSC and Televate continue to work diligently to formally identify and procure a vendor for the ITS/CAD/AVL systems, as well as to evaluate and implement the various components of the county's overall rebanding program. Six months were spent negotiating with Sprint Nextel just to finalize the PFA, and nearly as much time has been allocated so far to develop the reconfiguration plans. The county's efforts to complete the work already were challenging within the framework of the original TA timeline. Rebanding the MCTS system certainly cannot be completed within the FCC's new timeline.

The Milwaukee County radio network's complexities may sound very familiar to other radio system operators faced with similar challenges, and the new time constraints ordered by the FCC will be equally unrealistic for such entities. These dates also place a considerable burden on vendors to manufacture and deliver equipment, as well as on the army of technicians that is required to reprogram and/or install rebanded radios. Finally, standard government procurement requirements and timelines have a life cycle of their own and, even with the best intentions of the FCC to hasten the completion of the rebanding program, procurement officials cannot bend their unique regulations to comply with the revised timeline. Consequently, the rebanding community might wish to reassess the status of their respective programs and advise the FCC of more realistic completion timelines.

Rick Burke is managing partner for Televate LLC, which provides radio frequency and IT engineering services for the public-safety and homeland security sectors. Jim Dombrouski is rebanding program manager for Milwaukee County and a senior consultant for Televate.