Spectrum availability:A molten issue
Refarming is an agrarian analogy; does it translate into a heavy industrial setting? Bethlehem Steel’s radio managers speak out.
Push-to-talk in the steel industry isn’t as simple as it used to be. Private radio system operators and the electronics technicians responsible for systems used exclusively by a manufacturing plant or industrial complex need to be concerned with spectrum splitting, frequency overcrowding and the FCC’s plans to license offset frequencies. Radio systems managers for one of America’s largest industrial concerns are finding spectrum management to be as hot of a topic as a crucible of molten steel.
The FCC and private wireless The issue at hand regarding regulation of spectrum management is essentially this: The FCC, in trying to do a balancing act between commercial wireless radio (cellular, PCS, etc.) and private industrial radio, is considering refarming VHF and UHF frequencies to create new narrowband channels. By splitting a 15kHz VHF frequency into two 7.5kHz channels, for example, or a 25kHz UHF frequency into two 12.5kHz (or, eventually, into four 6.25kHz) channels, the FCC creates more radio spectrum for the industry- and more revenue for itself.
To properly use these new frequency assignments, the bandwidth of the radios would need to be reduced to fit within the new allocations. Although refarming is one answer to spectrum overcrowding, it gives rise to two major problems. First, all radios using the frequencies would have to be narrowband. Second, many private radio users that have been using the in-between frequencies (known as “offsets” or “splinters”) for their low-power communications on a secondary non-interference basis would run the risk of being stepped on by the newly licensed primary user. Because the licensed primary user has the “right of way,” the current offset users would lose those radio paths.
Not only does spectrum refarming increase the number of channels available, it opens the floodgates for use of much- higher-power equipment used in narrowband applications, often causing bleedover and interference. Whereas a neighboring radio user operating wideband radios at 3W may create no problem, that same user operating at 15W, 30W or higher can cause significant interference on adjacent narrowband channels. For certain radio users, particularly private wireless operators whose radio systems are completely encompassed within one to three square miles, storm clouds are on the horizon. In manufacturing or industrial plant systems, the system manager position has evolved into that of a network coordinator. This individual maintains the radio network as just one small fraction of his everyday duties, which include everything from getting wireline telephone systems installed and operational to maintaining the office computer system.
It is no slight to industrial radio managers to say that many of them simply do not have the time, the wireless background or the expertise to keep abreast of the dramatic developments in telecommunications technology. How, then, are they capable of keeping current with the generally confusing vacillations of Congressional legislative proceedings and the convoluted regulations of the FCC?
Steelyards and spectrum Fortunately, some operations have contracted consultants to make certain their operating licenses remain valid, that they are purchasing the radio equipment most suited to their changing needs and that they are meeting current and foreseeable FCC requirements and specifications. Bethlehem Steel, Bethlehem, PA, for instance, handles its radio licensing through Electronic Data Systems (EDS), the steelmaker’s information services provider, and is assisted by the legal savvy of Washington telecommunications lawyer Robert Schwaninger and his associates.
However, as Schwaninger (who also writes a column for this magazine) points out, “The majority of on-site people rarely know about FCC regulations, licensing issues and developing protocols that affect their company’s system. There are sometimes problems with communicating and coordinating efforts for the purpose of fulfilling emerging opportunities and obligations which arise through changing regulations. For this reason, many of these large industrial concerns are missing the boat on making themselves heard on the subject of spectrum management regulation.”
Probably due to its guidance by Schwaninger and EDS, Bethlehem Steel is well on its way to recognizing the seriousness of the refarming issue. One of the nation’s largest steel producers, Bethlehem Steel has annual revenues of $4.4 billion and ships 8.6 million tons of steel each year. The corporation conducts operations for all its business with the aid of some 150 licensed private radio channels. Dozens of frequencies are used in each corporate facility.
Although the corporate headquarters remains in Bethlehem, steel production operations are now located at Burns Harbor, IN; Sparrows Point, MD; Lackawanna, NY; and three other locations in Pennsylvania: Coatesville, Conshohocken and Steelton.
Hoosier hot metal Burns Harbor is situated on Lake Michigan, about 50 miles southeast of Chicago. It is one of Bethlehem’s largest divisions, producing hot and cold rolled sheet and plate steel for automotive, construction and other industries worldwide. The Burns Harbor facility employs about 6,000 people who use about 2,000 portable and mobile radios for voice communications, data input, status reports and telemetry. The radio system, using one repeater site, covers the entire three square miles of plant area, including eight main mill locations and their adjacent buildings. The coke oven operation alone comprises 10 to 12 buildings.
Burns Harbor uses some 900MHz channels for data, but the majority of communications is on VHF and UHF. Implementation of the system began in 1965. As with each of the other Bethlehem systems, it was designed primarily for voice communications to maintain safety and to assist in emergency operations: fire, ambulance and security. Now, the private radio system is used not only for voice, but for remote control of equipment, inventory, intermittent and continual status reporting, and numerous other tasks.
Cranes are operated from the ground; locomotives are moved along tracks via radio remote control; slab tracking (assigning casted steel slabs to temporary storage prior to shipment) data is transmitted; and inventories are stored. Many operations are critical, not in the usual commercial wireless sense of urgent voice messages, but in the sense of ultra-heavy equipment control and the radio-controlled functions within the steel mills.
Steve Fortin, system engineer for Burns Harbor, believes that frequency refarming causes major concern because most of that plant’s radio equipment will not function under the narrowband guidelines.
“Although we have some newer equipment that is programmable to the narrowband frequencies, most of our older equipment is wideband,” Fortin said. “Mandatory refarming of frequencies would entail a tremendous cost to us for new equipment.”
Burns Harbor now uses a lot of low-powered equipment on splintered frequencies that are shared within the plant. However, four other steel mills in the immediate area use radios that create interference from time to time.
“It is probable that interference between systems would happen if narrower frequencies are licensed,” Fortin said, “and we don’t see using commercial cellular or PCS as a real option here in our environment.”
Burns Harbor’s options, as Fortin sees them, are: Sit tight and hope the offset frequencies don’t interfere; implement new narrowband equipment; or obtain licenses for all their frequencies as primary channels, which the FCC rules is the only way to protect a frequency from being refarmed and used as offset frequencies by outside users. Apart from the first, “head-in-the-sand” option, all other approaches are going to be expensive and disruptive for Burns Harbor.
Tidewater tin milling The Sparrows Point plant, in Baltimore, is located on the Chesapeake Bay. This plant makes hot- and cold-rolled sheets, tin-mill products and galvanized sheet steel (stripped steel that is coated with zinc) in an operations complex encompassing more than 2,000 acres-all served by its private radio system. The 4,000 or so employees use 1,500 portable radios, about 500 mobiles and base stations, and six 120W repeaters. About six booster repeaters serve the 50 offset frequencies that are operated inside the plant buildings.
According to Jim Cannon, the senior engineer who handles RF frequencies for the Sparrows Point, the only time their data-transmitting splinter frequencies cause a problem is when they occasionally interfere with a Baltimore repeater that is on higher ground. Sometimes, other repeaters in the area bleed into Sparrows Point when they drift off frequency or are overmodulated, Cannon said. When Sparrows Point causes the interference, “We just flip over to another splinter we use,” he said. “We have a good relationship with the four or five other neighboring communications companies in the area, as well, so we’ve had no problems.”
A few units operate on 30MHz lowband VHF; many are in the 72MHz-75MHz midband VHF range; and most are in UHF. The midband VHF frequencies are used for voice and radio control, such as remote control for the 35 to 40 overhead cranes used within the facility. In the last five or 10 years, many radios in UHF have been deployed for use in inventory control. Mobile equipment, such as slab haulers, tractors and overhead cranes, have an onboard terminal that enters data on the computer as the slabs or coils are being transported.
“Almost all our radios have multiple frequencies within them,” Cannon said. “We locate personnel or give general directions on a repeater channel and then, so as not to tie that up, we go to our splinter channels to give detailed instruction or to monitor a particular operation.”
Cannon’s next challenge is to take a look at the different radios being used on the system and to formulate a plan to change the radio systems over to narrowband operation.
“We will probably go through a period of transition where we will be using both wideband and narrowband at the same time,” Cannon said. “Our real problem is that we don’t really need new radios now, and-if the FCC rulings make it necessary to convert everything to narrowband-we have just one year from the license issue date to load the channels.” Cannon said this would require replacing most of the current radios, but the wideband repeaters have to stay in the loop.
“We can do that with our (Motorola) HT1000 portables, but not with our MX, HT220s or HT600s, which will not switch back and forth from wideband to narrowband on different channels,” Cannon said. “Only about 25% of the radios we use are the HT1000 that can handle the dual bandwidth. All others would have to be replaced if we were forced to go to refarmed frequencies.”
Although no date has been set for the switch from wideband splinters, Cannon said it is expected by the year 2002, or within a few years after that.
“We know we will have to switch sooner or later,” he said. “The primary licensee has priority, and when the narrowband people come along, our only choice will be to go to narrowband ourselves to protect our channels.” Cannon believes that the FCC follows the lead of telecommunications equipment manufacturers, and because the equipment for full use of the splinter 6.25kHz or 7.5kHz frequencies is not yet available, “looking at those is a bit premature at this moment.”
Galvanized into action The Lackawanna, NY, plant produces galvanized steel and operates the coke oven battery, where coal is converted to coke to be used in basic steelmaking. The plant was formerly the second largest Bethlehem Steel facility, covering two or three miles along Lake Erie, south of Buffalo, with 8,000 onsite employees. In 1983 the plant was downsized by the closing of the steelmaking operation and later by the selling of bar mill operations to Bar Technologies. The Lackawanna galvanizing operation now employs 800 people who work within the one-square-mile compound lying in two towns: Lackawanna and Hamburg, NY.
The private radio system predominately uses UHF, with some VHF at 72MHz that is used for industrial operations radio remote control (with no voice traffic), and 153MHz for truck communications (voice only). There are 10 frequencies, 1MHz apart, for data communications, from 460.9125MHz to 469.9125 MHz. The 466MHz band is set aside for in-plant communications, with 16 frequencies used by all technical people and supervisors using portable radios. There are 20 to 30 hand-held radios and six mobile radios used as base stations in offices.
According to communications engineer Al Cipriano, the radio system began in the early days of the plant with a few 72MHz channels and evolved as the plant grew. The Lackawanna facility managers requested and obtained UHF frequencies as they needed them, with the 460MHz band used for at least 30 years. As people began carrying hand-held radios, Cipriano said, the system became more important.
“When you are repairing a crane inside a mill, and there are people both on the ground and in the air lowering a 5,000-pound motor, you want to make certain those two groups are in continual communications with each other,” Ciprano said. “We make sure that no one has a radio programmed in a way that might possibly interfere with crane operations. We are as intent as we can be on not letting any conversation elsewhere in the plant bleed into these conversations and become misconstrued, causing erroneous instructions.”
Cipriano is afraid that splinter frequency licensing will allow some of the nearby plants in the Buffalo area to affect their communications, increasing the chance of potentially bad results in critical situations such as this.
Nearby industrial plants, such as the Ford Motor assembly plant and American Axle, have created no radio functionality problems for Bethlehem Steel. Also, because most of the offices and facilities are within steel buildings, transmissions tend not to bleed into neighboring radios. With Lake Erie on one side of the Lackawanna plant, and the two cities on the other, there are limited areas for new industries to emerge and obtain licenses for narrowband frequencies, Cipriano said, adding that if the FCC were to issue frequency assignments between Bethlehem’s, its wideband radios would interfere.
To date, Lackawanna’s only real interference problem came as a direct result of the original plant’s earlier downsizing. The coke oven and the galvanized steel operations each gave up some of their frequencies when the bar-mill business was sold. Some frequencies were allocated to the bar-mill operation, and some were returned to the FCC for distribution.
Although the bar-mill plant is situated directly between the galvanized mill and the coke oven facilities, frequencies were carefully calibrated, and there was no overlapping radio noise. However, when the plant was negotiating for the sale of the bar mill, frequencies were a secondary issue not given a great deal of consideration. The galvanized steel division was later surprised to find taxicabs dispatching on “its” frequency. It turned out that the frequency had actually belonged to the coke plant, and it was among those given back to the FCC. The cab company was legally using its licensed frequency with a 100W or so transmitter, much to the dismay of the steel plant’s employees.
Cipriano asserts that wideband operation inherently means interference with neighboring narrowband users.
“It costs a lot to make all frequencies primary,” he said. “On the other hand, changing out all our radios would be very costly and present quite a problem. We tend to purchase upper-end products from the manufacturer because we want the best, smallest, most durable units available; we have a lot of money tied up in the radios. We are always having to buy more to replace units that have been run over with trucks, fallen into heavy machinery-any number of ways they are destroyed.”
Knowing that it takes time for newer equipment to be made market-ready, Cipriano sees “no immediate effect.”
“Time will tell how big a problem this frequency refarming becomes,” he said. However, reflecting the attitude of most of his colleagues, Cipriano said that whatever changes have to be made will be made, but “there will be a lot of kicking and screaming” over those changes.
Running off the rails Pennsylvania Steel Technologies, the Bethlehem plant in Steelton, near Harrisburg, is one of only two rail producers in the United States. Recycled scrap metal is used to charge a 150-ton-per-hour electronic furnace. The resulting liquid steel is poured into ingots or sent to the continuous caster to make flat bars for industrial applications and specialty pieces for rolling into rails.
Although the Steelton plant’s radio system supports just 50 mobiles and 150 portable radios, the operation is spread out over about five miles and employs 1,300 people. Five repeaters are used by the emergency response team and the operating mill. Most radios operate on UHF and are used for remote control of machinery, material tracking, data update on material handling and coding to turn machinery on and off. Because Steelton is the largest industry in the immediate area, it experiences no current problems with crowded radio frequencies or interference.
Forging a new plan Although all may be fine at Steelton and similarly isolated installations at the moment, refarming will eventually affect virtually every manufacturing and industrial facility using private radio. There will be a definite effect not only on users, but also on commercial wireless carriers and on the manufacturers of radio equipment. Whereas commercial carriers and radio equipment suppliers-and the FCC, of course-may reap hefty financial gains from spectrum splitting, the effect on the private radio user is almost certain to be one of financial and efficiency loss. In a huge spectrum management plan, private radio users are the ones who would lose priority. They are, therefore, the most vulnerable. Private industrial radio users, take heed.