Time is ripe for reconsideration of 700 MHz narrowbanding
We're just a week from what should be an exciting Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference. Among the hot topics are the proposed nationwide public-safety broadband network — the FirstNet board has to be announced by Monday — and the efforts to narrowband systems operating at 512 MHz and below, which are supposed to be completed by the end of the year.
While these items are at the forefront of many public-safety-communications discussions at the moment, there is another narrowbanding mandate — for 700 MHz narrowband systems — that also deserves attention.
Under current rules, 700 MHz narrowband systems would have to operate on 6.25 kHz-equivalent channels by December 31, 2016. In many ways, this edict is similar to the narrowbanding mandate for UHF and VHF networks — public-safety entities would need to migrate their systems to narrower channel widths, and any associated costs will be borne by the licensee.
But there are significant differences concerning the 700 MHz narrowbanding situation. For the most part, the narrowbanding at UHF and VHF is being done to older systems, and operators have known for 15 years that they would need to take some sort of action. At 700 MHz, the spectrum in much of the country was not even available until 2009, so many 700 MHz narrowband systems would not even be 10 years old when the FCC rules would mandate a further investment — and that's a problem for entities that anticipate paying for an LMR network over 10-15 years.
For public-safety jurisdictions struggling with tight budgets in a down economy, spending additional money on a system that is relatively new and functioning well is not a practical use of taxpayer money — in fact, it is one of the reasons that many UHF and VHF systems will not be narrowbanded.
In addition, the reality is that technological progress will not wait. Even with narrowbanding below 512 MHz, entities like the New York City police department have expressed a desire to migrate mission-critical voice functions to voice over broadband. The NYPD's position is that it does not want to spend a lot of precious funds rebanding its LMR system, because then it would be obligated to use it for 15-20 years and would not have as much money to pay for an LTE system.
The NYPD subsequently was criticized by many in the public-safety sector, because mission-critical voice over broadband seems to be a long way off. But technology evolves at warp speed, and the landscape could well change dramatically very quickly — indeed, some believe that mission-critical voice over LTE could be a realistic possibility within a decade, perhaps much sooner.
Consequently, the FCC — spurred by a petition from the state of Louisiana and supporting filings from APCO and the state of Arkansas — is taking a wise approach by deciding to revisit its 700 MHz narrowbanding plans.
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