In 2004, the FCC set a deadline of Jan. 1, 2013, for public safety agencies to convert their land mobile radio (LMR) functionality to narrowbanding — a method that allows radios to use spectrum more efficiently, freeing up extra capacity for additional licenses. The mandated change will avert agencies from a more bandwidth-hungry approach called widebanding and make available additional spectrum licenses for crowded metropolitan jurisdictions. It has been a costly burden, however, for jurisdictions already satisfied with the capacity they possess and those gravely unprepared to meet the deadline.

Agencies often can’t afford new equipment, or their leaders are ill-equipped from predecessors who did nothing to prepare. In some cases, especially in rural areas, agencies are unaware of the deadline or think their failure to convert will go unnoticed by the FCC. Once the deadline passes and those who converted their equipment start narrowbanding, that equipment could interfere with LMRs in neighboring jurisdictions still in wideband-mode. The FCC has refused to extend the official deadline, which means some portion of the country will be in violation after it passes, said David Furth, deputy chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. He estimates that one-third of jurisdictions in the nation have already converted. Therefore, the remaining two-thirds are made up of jurisdictions still transitioning and poised to meet the deadline and jurisdictions that are already too behind and won’t meet it — but it’s unknown how many jurisdictions fall in the former and latter categories.

Those that miss the deadline will need to submit applications for special waiver extensions, but they can’t claim that they weren’t given enough time, said Dave Buchanan, committee chair of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council’s (NPSTC) Spectrum Management Committee. The FCC started this endeavor in 1991 and by 1992, the agency established its narrowbanding initiative. It asserted that all public safety and business LMRs operating in the 150-512 MHz radio bands should cease using 25 kHz efficiency technology and begin operating using at least 12.5 kHz efficiency technology. Public safety lobbying organizations objected to the costly new rule during the 1990s, but didn’t prevail. LMR vendors began selling narrowband-capable equipment in 1997, and the FCC specified in 2004 that the conversion deadline was 2013. Over the years, the agency has urged public safety leaders to seek additional funding early and to purchase all refreshment LMRs with narrowband capabilities. An assessment of the challenges that lay ahead both before and after the deadline is a critical step for any public safety agency that’s behind schedule.

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