Interoperability at the expense of intra-operability
Interoperability is a big “buzzword” these days. In a disaster or emergency, the importance of interoperability (between agencies involved or charged with public safety) cannot be overstated. However, in routine day-to-day operations each agency operates independently. Each agency has developed a two-way radio system that has evolved over the years into one that is customized to fit the operating needs and requirements of that particular agency. Should each of these independent communication systems be discarded in favor of a mass exodus to an 800MHz trunking system? Although it may achieve a measure of interoperability between agencies that might be involved in a concerted operation during an emergency or disaster, does it adversely affect the ability of those independent agencies to communicate effectively during the normal (99.99% of time) day-to-day operation of that agency? These are questions with which many communication managers and agency directors are grappling here in South Carolina and across the nation.
Here, in South Carolina state government, the push toward 800MHz is gathering a head of steam. Recently, certain events have added fuel to that fire. First, a proviso passed by the state legislature has given full power and authority to the Office of Information Resources (OIR) to make available for lease (for communication sites) all sites owned by the state of South Carolina. OIR operates under the Division of Operations (DO) of the Budget and Control Board (BCB). Secondly, Motorola announced the purchase of the 800MHz SmartzoneÒ trunking system from SCANA Communications with the announced intentions of building out the system to full statewide coverage.
The full text of the proviso is presented here.
63B.9. (BCB/DO: OIR – Wireless Communications Tower) The Budget and Control Board (“the Board”) is directed to coordinate tower and antenna operations within South Carolina state government to maximize the use of the State’s wireless communications infrastructure and to support a statewide public safety communication system. The Board is authorized to (1) review and approve all new or renewed leases and contractual agreements regarding antenna placement on state owned communications towers and state owned buildings, (2) coordinate all new communications tower construction on state owned property, (3) enter into agreements with private entities to promote and market to government and non-government users excess capacity on the State’s wireless communications infrastructure, (4) generate revenue by leasing, licensing, or selling to the public and private sectors, in compliance with State and federal law, excess capacity on the State’s wireless communications infrastructure, and (5) construct new communications assets on any appropriate state owned property for the purpose of generating revenue pursuant to this proviso. All revenue from antenna and tower space contracts or leases, existing prior to the effective date of this proviso, or renewals for this same space, must be reported to the Board, but such revenue shall be retained by the owning agency. All revenue from new tower and antenna leases and contracts entered into after the effective date of this proviso must be remitted to a separate fund established by the Board. This fund shall be retained and carried over from year to year and shall be used to create and support a statewide public safety communications system. Agencies owning tower antenna assets will be allowed to recover from this fund expenses associated with implementing this proviso. The Board will create an annual report detailing all revenue collected and disbursed pursuant to this proviso. This report shall also include a summary of each state agency’s overall antenna tower revenues, whether such revenue is retained by the individual agency or remitted to the fund established by this proviso. This report shall be compiled on a fiscal year basis and made available to the South Carolina General Assembly on October 1 of each year.
The announcement of the Motorola purchase of the SCANA 800MHz trunking system came on June 18. Here is the news release from Reuters on MSNBC.com:
Columbia, S.C., June 18 — Wireless technology giant Motorola, Inc. (NYSE:MOT) on Monday said it would buy South Carolina’s statewide radio communications network from energy holding company Scana Corp.’s telecommunications unit. Details of the deal, signed on Friday, for the 800-megahertz system were not disclosed. It would be the first radio network — used for public safety purposes by fire departments, emergency management systems, law enforcement agencies and utilities — owned by Motorola.
Scana, which owns South Carolina Electric & Gas, said it wanted to sell the network to concentrate on its core businesses. Motorola, which had provided hardware for the system, has built or is building similar systems in 16 states. It also will own a similar network in Illinois.
Motorola, based near Chicago, said it would immediately begin expanding the system as well as upgrading it for full digital operation. It expects to complete the buildout within 18 months, when the system will be worth more than $60 million.
The system currently covers more than 70 percent of South Carolina, serving about 9,400 users.
Scana said its telecom unit entered the wireless communications business in 1991 after Hurricane Hugo revealed inadequacies in radio communications in the state.
Scana also said it would continue to pursue a fiber-optic network in South Carolina and North Carolina, and a telecommunications tower business.
Concerning the proviso and the 800MHz statewide radio system, a list of questions was submitted to Katie Morgan, Deputy Director of OIR. The questions along with the responses follow.
Question #1: How did the proviso (63B.9) come into existence?
Answer: Proviso 63B.9 was introduced and passed during the 2000 legislative session as a result of two independent reports encouraging the State of South Carolina to maximize the use of its antenna and tower assets. In April 1999, the Legislative Audit Council noted that South Carolina does not manage its property assets, including antenna and tower sites, effectively. It encouraged the General Assembly to take action to enable the coordination of marketing these assets to the private sector. In January 2000, the State Public Safety Communications Coordinating Committee, which consists of state and local law enforcement and public safety agencies, also cited the need for coordination of state assets to facilitate the creation of a statewide Public Safety Communications System.
Question #2: What was the driving force behind the proviso?
Answer: Both the General Assembly, the Governor and the law enforcement community recognize the critical need for a unified statewide radio system. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo graphically illustrated the difficulty public safety and utility agencies face when they lack a uniform radio system that allows them to communicate effectively. Our state’s emergency response plan for dealing with hurricanes depends upon outside agencies quickly responding to the area where a storm hits and 800 MHz radio will ensure these organizations can talk to each other. The need for this system was reinforced after the Hurricane Floyd evacuation. The General Assembly has also strongly supported this concept by appropriating money for tower construction and in adopting the proviso to create a funding mechanism to support a central statewide radio system.
Question #3: Whose idea?
Answer: See above.
Question #4: What impact do you think this (proviso) will have on individual agencies?
Answer: The proviso will lead to agencies having a better statewide radio network, allowing them to greatly improve service during public emergencies and other situations. The proviso will create more coordination and utilization of tower assets between state agencies. The proviso creates a process for the coordination and sharing of new and existing state towers between state agencies, local governments and commercial markets.
Question #5: The proviso and the Motorola purchase of the 800 MHz SCANA system came at the same time. Please comment on that.
Answer: The tower proviso became law in June of 2000. The negotiations between SCANA and Motorola were part of a private business transaction that were independently entered into by the two companies. The state had a right under the contract with SCANA to sign off on any sale of the system and it did so because the Motorola agreement provides many advantages to South Carolina. Those negotiations did not begin until February 2001.
Question #6: What is/was the relationship/agreement (contractual or otherwise) between SCANA Communications and South Carolina State government regarding the use of the 800 MHz system and now Motorola? Please elaborate.
Answer: SCANA’s agreement called for the construction and maintenance the 800 MHz system on a cost shared basis. SCANA would only expand the system in areas where existing demand made the project economically viable. SCANA constructed new infrastructure when the financial commitments were in place to support the expansion. Motorola has agreed to continue to manage the system on a cost shared basis and complete the statewide build out within 18 months without up front financial commitments from state or local governments. Motorola has also agreed to not change the existing monthly per unit charge for a minimum of 5 years. The concept of system sharing allows state and local governments along with utilities to combine their purchasing power. This sharing allows users to see a reduced cost compared to privately purchased trunked systems. Monthly user cost include all system maintenance, utilities, tower leases, etc. Users can further reduce cost by providing infrastructure to the shared network.
Question #7: A new release on the Internet on June 18 stated “ …It would be the first radio network-used for public safety purposed by fire departments emergency management systems, law enforcement agencies and utilities owned by Motorola. Since this is a proprietary, system virtually eliminating competition is this a good deal for the taxpayers of South Carolina?
Answer: Motorola has agreed to bring all system sites into compliance with the APCO 25 common air interface standard. This open protocol will allow any manufacturer to build units that will work with the system. Currently several non-Motorola brand radios are being tested and utilized on the system. As this standard becomes more common and 800 MHz networks grow, more companies may choose to build units to serve this expanding market.
Question #8: In fiscal year 2000-2001, $3,000,000 was appropriated in the state budgetfor OIR to be used for the 800 MHz radio system. How was the money used?
Answer: The money was used to construct and maintain 5 additional 800 MHz sites along the coast of South Carolina. These sites were constructed in critical hurricane evacuation and impact areas.
Question #9: How many agencies and/or state radio users are using the “statewide 800MHz system?
Answer: Currently over 19 state agencies with over 2,500 units utilize the system. The system currently has over 9,500 state government, local government and utility users.
Question #10: According to the new releases, Motorola is committed to “building out” the 800 MHz system to full statewide service within 18 months. How many state agencies do you expect will be using the system by then? How many state agencies do you expect to “sign on” the system within the next 5 years?
Answer: We don’t know how many state agencies will use the 800 MHz system in the future but we have every reason to believe participation will grow. Currently, we cannot offer potential customers statewide coverage. But the Motorola deal will change that. Because network participation is not required, the system will grow only if coverage areas and service quality meet the needs of the potential customers: state and local agencies.
Question #11: What will happen to the licenses for the conventional radio systems of state agencies when/if they move to the 800 MHz system?
Answer: No decision or review of potential future unused licenses has taken place. The licenses will have to be reviewed when and if they become available.
Question #12: Will state agencies be forced to move to the 800 MHz system?
Answer: Our goal is to help create a system that agencies want to use because it helps them do their jobs better. Nobody is being forced to participate. In addition, there may be circumstances where 800 MHz cannot meet a specific requirement and other approaches – ranging from different types of radios to cellphones – may be preferable.
Question #13: Was the proviso designed (at least in part) to force state agencies to 800MHz?
Answer: No, the proviso was designed to help establish a funding mechanism that will create a statewide communications system by using existing assets in a creative way.
Question #14: A quote from Motorola’s new release stated: “The cost for building and operating this network are shared by more than 44 state, municipal and utility agencies who use the network by paying monthly user fees.” Can you tell us the amount of the user fee and which agencies are included in the number stated?
Answer: The users fee varies from each agency based to the number of system sites they need. Prices vary from 11.90 for single site coverage to $75.60 for full system-wide coverage. The number of agencies that are currently utilizing the system far exceeds 44. The number is closer to 87 to 100 agencies currently utilize the system.
Question #15: Will conventional radio networks (VHF/UHF) be linked into the system.
Answer: Only on a limited basis. The User Advisory Committee establishes policies for linked frequencies and systems. Linked UHF and VHF systems are “free riders” who add traffic to the system but do not provide any funding to support the network infrastructure. Thus, a linked agency gets all the advantages of statewide coverage but makes other users foot the bill.
Question #16: Who holds the license for the public safety frequencies used on the system? (Since SCANA is basically a utility company they aren’t qualified to hold a license on public safety frequencies with out a special waiver from the FCC. Is this the case here?)
Answer: State government, local government and power utilities hold the system licenses. The FCC granted the system a waiver to operate a shared public safety/power utility spectrum system in 1998. The system operated under an STA prior the FCC waiver. The system was to first of its kind to combine public safety and power utility frequencies in a shared system approved by the FCC.
Question #17: According to many experts, 800 MHz exhibits poor performance in dense coniferous forest where forestry firefighters operate. Will the new system provide adequate coverage for our state and federal forestry firefighters? How will this be addressed?
Answer: It all depends upon the State Forestry Commission’s interest in moving to 800 MHz. Currently, system coverage in rural areas varies based upon terrain, foliage, antenna type, output wattage and what kind of unit is being used. In areas where local governments participate, enhanced coverage is being provided. In areas where only a few state government units participate, fewer sites have been constructed. Should Forestry decide to participate, there are many approaches that could be used to ensure forestry firefighters have the radio coverage they need. This includes portable self-contained conventional sites that could be quickly deployed to emergency scenes. But we have not had the opportunity to tailor the system to meet these needs because Forestry is not participating at this time.
Question #18: The proviso states that “…This fund shall be retained and carried over from year to year and shall be used to create and support a statewide public safety communications system.” This doesn’t specifically mention 800 MHz. So, could some of these funds be used to support conventional VHF/UHF systems in current use? If not, why not?
Answer: Because the General Assembly and the Public Safety Communications Coordinating Committee back a central unified statewide radio system, funding priority is being given to they 800 MHz Smartzone system.
Question #19: The proviso states: “…(4) generate revenue by leasing, licensing, or sell to the public and private sectors, in compliance with State and federal law, excess capacity on State’s wireless communications infrastructure, and …” Does this refer solely to the 800 MHz network?
Answer: The proviso is not specific to the 800 MHz network.
Question #20: Are there any plans to acquire any spectrum in the new 700 MHz band that will be available in a few years? If so, how will it tie in with the current system?
Answer: Yes. It is hoped that the radio manufactures will develop radios and radio upgrades to support the new 700 MHz band frequencies in existing 800 MHz systems.
A meeting of several representatives of the SC Forestry Commission, OIR, BCB and several other state agencies was held in June of 2001 in an attempt to clear the air and get an understanding of just how all of this would affect the agencies with representatives in attendance. A few questions were answered; many more were raised. In fairness to Katie Morgan at OIR, I must say that she has been very forthcoming with answers and information. However, informal discussions with various agency representatives revealed much discontent and suspicions about the way this “arrangement” came about. Off the record, not much optimism was expressed by those representatives in attendance at that June meeting. Hopefully, this will turn out to be a win-win situation for South Carolina and the public safety agencies that serve and protect the citizens of this state.
Bishop is editorial director. His email address is [email protected].