Public-safety LMR licensing activity sets new low during 2018
Land-mobile-radio (LMR) licensing activity remained relatively flat in 2018, with public-safety licensing hitting an all-time low for the second straight year and business-industrial activity experiencing a modest increase above last year’s record-low level, according to the FCC’s Universal Licensing System (ULS) database.
Exact figures for the number of LMR licensing applications granted typically would not be known for several weeks, as applications filed during the latter part of 2018 are processed. With the partial government shutdown impacting the licensing divisions of the FCC beginning today, final licensing statistics could be delayed even further into the year.
However, enough information is available in the ULS database about pending licensing applications to make some notable conclusions about LMR trends in the United States.
With more than 1,400 applications pending, the combined number of public-safety and business-industrial licenses granted in 2018 should exceed last year’s total of 13,678, which is the all-time low figure—by more than 2,000 granted licenses—for a full year since the ULS online database was established in 2000.
If all pending 2018 applications were granted, the combined total would reach 14,075 for 2018. Given a normal granting percentage for these applications, the number of granted LMR licenses would fail to reach 14,000 for the second consecutive year, making 2018 the second-worst year for LMR licensing activity since 2001.
Public-safety licensing activity decreased for the sixth consecutive year in 2018 and will establish a new all-time low for the second straight year. If all pending applications are approved, 3,219 licenses would be granted after being processed by the four public-safety frequency coordinators, led by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). That would represent a 5.4% decrease from last year’s previous all-time low figure of 3,402 public-safety applications granted.
The last four years represent four of the five years with the lowest levels of public-safety LMR licensing activity, with the 3,530 granted applications in 2001—the last year before post-9/11 funding helped spark public-safety LMR initiatives nationwide—becoming the third-lowest total since the ULS was established online.
If all pending applications are granted, the 3,219 public-safety licenses would represent a 69.6% decrease from the 10,602 applications granted in 2012, when first-responders agencies were working to bring their LMR systems in compliance with the FCC’s narrowbanding mandate—a well-known “bubble” of activity in the industry. Perhaps more relevant is the fact that 3,219 licenses would represent a 24.2% decrease in public-safety applications granted compared to 2015, a post-narrowbanding year when 4,248 licenses were approved.
ULS statistics indicate that 2,972 public-safety licenses had been granted as of 2:30 p.m. ET today.
Activity in the business-industrial sector was more encouraging during 2018, resulting in a slight rebound the 2017 figure of 10,276 applications granted—a figure that was 980 less than the previous all-time low for the sector in 2009, which came in the aftermath of a global economic crisis.
If all pending applications were granted, the FCC would approve 10,856 business-industrial applications for 2018, which would represent a 5.6% increase compared to the 2017 figure and the second-lowest licensing activity in the sector for a full year since the online ULS database was established. If a normal percentage of applications are granted, the final 2018 total likely would be closer to 10,750. The FCC has approved 9,670 business-industrial licenses to date that were processed by 12 frequency coordinators, led by the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA).
Several industry sources expressed mild surprise by the results, noting that the vast majority of LMR-replacement examples with push-to-talk-over-cellular (PoC) services have occurred in the business-industrial sector. However, other sources noted that corporate tax cuts likely provided enterprises additional resources to build new LMR systems or bolster aging networks.
But even a best-case scenario of all pending applications being granted would result in the second-lowest business-industrial licensing total recorded on the ULS online database and would represent a 39.2% decrease compared to 2015, when 17,865 applications were granted in the sector. To date, the FCC has granted 9,670 business-industrial applications, according to the ULS database.
On the public-safety side, many sources expected LMR licensing activity to at least equal last year’s record-low licensing level, particularly with Motorola Solutions repeatedly expressing encouragement about the strength of the U.S. market for mission-critical LMR systems. In addition, some thought LMR investments would become more likely as it became clear that mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) services would not be available on the FirstNet system during 2018.
But other sources noted oft-repeated anecdotes of elected and administrative officials being reluctant to approve major capital expenditures on LMR systems—implying at least a decade-long commitment to the technology—until they are able to test and evaluate an MCPTT offering via FirstNet or another broadband provider.
AT&T officials have expressed hope that FirstNet subscribers will be able to subscribe to MCPTT services from multiple providers during the second half of this year, although a FirstNet representative last month said that AT&T is not contractually obligated to make unicast MCPTT available until March 2021.