Demand for spectrum to support U.S. land-mobile-radio (LMR) networks is at its lowest level since 2001, with the number of license approvals projected to drop by more than 50% since the 2013 narrowbanding deadline and by more than 40% during the past two years,  according to statistics from the FCC’s Universal Licensing System (ULS) online database.

During 2013—the year after frequency coordinators processed record numbers of approved applications to as licensees sought to meet the narrowbanding deadline at the end of 2012—the FCC granted 29,741 applications for business-industrial and public-safety LMR uses, according to the ULS database. Through the first half of this year, only 6,698 frequency applications for these sectors were granted.

If this first-half approval total is duplicated during the second half of the year, the projected total of license approvals would represent a 55.1% decrease from the 2013 licensing level and a 40.4% drop since 2015. However, the number of frequency applications granted has decreased noticeably during the second half of each of the last four years.

Even if the second-half approval totals match the numbers for the first half of the year, they would represent all-time lows on the ULS online system. The projected total of public-safety LMR licenses would be an 10.4% below the 2001 figure of 3,530. Meanwhile, the business-industrial estimate would be 10.9% below the 11,256 total in 2009. The ULS online database does not provide full-year statistics prior to 2001.

While there is still time for a second-half turnaround in LMR licensing activity this year, a lackluster July—when the FCC approved just 206 business-industrial applications and 26 public-safety applications during the first 25 days of the month—has not provided seeds of encouragement.

Although various LMR industry sources have offered multiple potential explanations, the downward trend in approved new and modified LMR licenses is troublesome to Ralph Haller, executive director for the Forestry Conservation Communications Association (FCCA), a certified public-safety frequency coordinator.

 “I really am concerned about the future of the land-mobile industry, given the trend,” Haller said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “It’s a little less than half of what was done four years ago. Each year, the number has gone down. So, the trend is down, in both business-industrial and public safety.

“I kind of thought, ‘Well, is FirstNet the issue?’ I don’t think so. Maybe some [of the decrease can be attributed to the promise of FirstNet], but not entirely, because the business-industrial side is down, as well.”

Haller said it is “not likely” that public-safety agencies or enterprises are simply foregoing the use of wireless communications, so he believes there is a movement to cellular technologies and/or that entities are “just letting whatever they have now run, and they’re not doing anything to upgrade or install new systems.”

If accurate, this proved to be a dangerous approach to take, particularly for public-safety agencies, Haller said.

“When you really have to get a message through, and there’s an emergency, it’s the LMR networks that work and not the others,” he said. “My concern is that people—at least on the public-safety side—are looking to eventually be on FirstNet, and, therefore, they’re letting their current systems run without any attention.

“At some point, those systems are going to begin to fail, and they’re going to be stuck with, ‘Well, FirstNet’s not ready for us yet, and our system has just gone out. What do we do?’ I think that’s the awareness that people need to be sensitized to, at least on the public-safety side.”