Dispatch services compete with wireless telephone for available frequencies
Hawaiian Wireless, based in Honolulu, began using specialized mobile radio (SMR) frequencies to provide cellular telephone service on Feb. 6, 1997. Unlike the combination of dispatch, telephone and paging services provided by Nextel Communications, McLean, VA, Hawaiian Wireless does not offer dispatch service. Let’s say that again. Hawaiian Wireless, an SMR system operator, does not offer dispatch service. Why is that important?
SMR originally was envisioned as a means to extend dispatch services to more organizations. Entrepreneurs would build 800MHz repeater systems to rebroadcast, usually over a wide area, signals picked up from portable and mobile two-way radios. Many organizations with requirements for mobile communications among their workers then could be served by renting airtime on the SMR system instead of building their own repeaters or networks of repeaters.
SMR operators tend to build systems where population is concentrated, and some organizations must send workers where few people go. For that and other reasons, some organizations prefer to control their own radio communications systems.
Here are the definitions: An entrepreneur builds a radio communications network and sells airtime to others = SMR.
A business or public safety agency uses its own radio communications network = private wireless (formerly “private radio”).
Communication over a radio network (SMR, private wireless) among members of one organization = dispatch.
Making phone calls on a radio network (cellular, PCS, SMR) = wireless telephone.
From at least two perspectives, the accomplishment of Hawaiian Wireless can be admired. In marketing, it has allowed the entry into Hawaii of a fifth wireless telephone carrier, along with cellular carriers BellSouth and GTE, and personal communications service (PCS) carriers Western Wireless and PrimeCo. In technology, it represents a conversion of cellular infrastructure and handsets to work on the 850MHz SMR band.
The problem is that Hawaiian Wireless’ accomplishment represents a diversion of radio spectrum from dispatch service to telephone service. At one time, the federal government discouraged the use of radio networks built for dispatch from being used for wireless telephone. Not anymore, and not since many years ago.
Legal and technical considerations make it difficult to auction dispatch frequencies. Wireless telephone frequencies, well, that’s a different matter. The fact that most wireless telephone frequencies can be sold is enough for many federal lawmakers and regulators to close their minds to the need for dispatch service.
Dispatch service serves an important role in safety and commercial productivity. Companies that supply fuel, baggage and security services at airports use private wireless. Mining, farming and manufacturing companies use private wireless. Police, fire and emergency medical agencies use private wireless. Utility, petroleum distribution and electrical transmission companies use private wireless.
Aside from improving the safety of workers, customers and the public, private wireless systems improve business efficiency. They conserve resources, reduce costs and prices, and strengthen the competitiveness of American industry vs. foreign producers.
The lure of converting SMR frequencies away from dispatch service has proved to be powerful. In some cases, it has yet to become profitable. Sometimes it seems as though every mobile communications application has to be consumer-oriented, such as wireless telephones, pagers and laptop computers.
The value of private wireless seems so clear to people involved with it that sometimes they have trouble understanding why it doesn’t seem clear to so many lawmakers and federal officials. It may be difficult to overcome the money argument that wireless telephone means auctions, and private wireless does not. Even so, the case can be made that loss of dispatch service means the loss of jobs, the loss of business to foreign competitors and, in some cases, increased safety risks.
Private wireless users, on their own and with the encouragement of trade associations, visit the FCC and Capitol Hill to explain their communications requirements. Some equipment dealers and SMR operators make individual visits, too, and many of them work through trade associations in an effort to retain and expand dispatch frequencies. The effort has to continue.
A lot of advice about how to influence government decisions gets handed out at industry conferences.
Here are some examples: An FCC official says that, as important as dispatch service may seem to be, companies that use it and companies that provide it compete for attention with many other voices. Respond to commmission notices of inquiry and rulemaking proceedings, write to commissioners and policymakers, and telephone and visit the commission, he advises. And don’t stop.
A trade association executive says that although it is all right to “go over the commission’s head” by directing efforts at federal lawmakers, it is better to begin with the commission. If the results are not what you want, write to the people at the commission to whom you made your case and let them know you respect their opinion, but you are going to take it further. “Don’t burn bridges at the commission,” is his advice.
A telecommunications attorney says that it is important not only to act on your own behalf, but to act as part of a trade association that best represents your interests. Some associations tend to represent large or small businesses better. Choosing an association based in part on the size of your business may improve the results of the time and money you spend.
Once upon a time, the future looked rosy for dispatch service. First 800MHz, and then 900MHz frequencies were allocated for the purpose, after having been retrieved from TV broadcasting. Today, many of those frequencies seem headed for wireless telephone service.
More recently, the FCC proposed to retrieve 10 more TV broadcasting channels and make them available in part for wireless communications. Maybe only public safety agencies are assured of receiving some of those frequencies for private wireless. It will take a great deal of effort to bring some of those frequencies over to private wireless for business and industrial use. It will be worth it.