The Federal Narrowbanding Mandate: Is Your Community Ready?

Douglas M. Aiken

You may have heard the term “narrowbanding” and you may know that it has something to do with the radio communications systems used in your community. This article will provide the information you need to comply with a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandate that will affect two-way radio communications systems, including those used by state, county and local governments. Effective January 1, 2013, all radio systems operating on frequencies between 150 and 512 Megahertz (MHz) must employ “narrowband” emissions. As of June 1, 2012, the FCC reports that nearly 40 percent of licenses held by government agencies in New Hampshire have not complied with the federal mandate.

“Narrowbanding” refers to a requirement by the FCC that—on or before January 1, 2013—all existing licensees in the private land mobile VHF and UHF bands, including all public safety and other governmental licensees, operate on radio channel bandwidths of 12.5 kHz or less. Licensees traditionally have operated analog mobile radio systems that operate on channel bandwidths of 25 kHz. Bandwidth is the amount of spectrum occupied when making a radio transmission on your assigned channel.

If you were able to view the radio signal, you would see that it occupies a space that is 12.5 kHz above and below your operating frequency and, therefore, in a non-narrowband system it is 25 kHz wide. By moving all systems to 12.5 kHz, or narrowband, the result will be a signal just 6.25 kHz above and below your operating frequency. The purpose of mandatory narrowbanding is to promote more efficient use of the VHF and UHF land mobile bands. Today, these bands are highly congested, and there often is not enough spectrum available for licensees to expand their existing systems or implement new systems. As licensees convert their systems to operate on narrower channel bandwidths, new channels will be available for licensing by other agencies that need them.

One common misconception is that the narrowbanding mandate is a requirement to switch to digital emissions. The FCC’s rules do not require licensees to employ any particular type of emission—either analog or digital modulation is permitted. You may continue to operate analog equipment, even after the January 1, 2013 deadline, provided that your equipment meets the 12.5 kHz standards.

You may also have heard that this does not apply to paging channels. While this is true, the only channels designated as “paging-only” in the public safety radio pool are 152.0075 MHz and 157.450 MHz. I am not aware of any New Hampshire public safety agencies utilizing these two frequencies. Many fire and emergency medical service agencies alert personnel by paging but they utilize their normal voice channels.

Compliance
Compliance with the mandate requires three actions by each community. First, list all of your departments that utilize two-way radio systems and the frequency band that the systems operate on. Second, your FCC license(s) must be modified to show the new narrowband emission designation. An application must be submitted to the FCC Licensing Division in Gettysburg, PA. Your communications service provider can assist with this. Third, your existing radio equipment must be converted to narrowband emission. For most equipment currently in use in New Hampshire this can be accomplished through a software change. Older equipment may not be capable of operation utilizing narrowband emissions and must be replaced or taken out of service. All radio equipment should be inventoried by make, model and serial number. Contact the service agency that maintains your radio system and provide the inventory (they may already have an inventory of your equipment) to determine if you will be able to convert to narrowband emissions or if new equipment will be required.

Narrowbanding is not optional. Licensees cannot simply ignore the FCC’s narrowbanding rules. Everyone that is currently licensed in the VHF and/or UHF land mobile bands, and not currently operating on narrowband (12.5 kHz) equipment, will be affected. Low band systems (30 – 50 MHz) and 800 MHz systems are not affected by this mandate. The FCC has stated that licensees that do not meet the deadline will be considered in violation and could face enforcement action, which may include admonishment, monetary fines or loss of license. The Land Mobile Communications Council, an umbrella organization for public safety, critical infrastructure and business wireless communications which represents all of the FCC recognized frequency coordination associations, has voted to consider any system that is not licensed for narrowband operation after February 1, 2013 to be an illegally operating system and to allow the licensing of new users on the frequencies in use by the noncompliant system. Failure to modify your license and convert to the narrow emission standards could result in a new system operating on your frequencies.

The FCC has announced a process to allow requests for waiver of the narrowband mandate. The waiver requirements are not easy to meet and the licensee must show extenuating circumstances in order to gain a waiver. The only waivers that have been granted involve licensees that are in the process of moving to new systems operating on frequencies not required to narrowband such as 700 and 800 MHz. Simply saying that you have not budgeted for this requirement or that you would prefer to wait an extra year or two will not meet the requirements of a waiver request. You will find the public notice outlining the requirements for a waiver request on the FCC Narrowband website (noted below).

Get Started
There are several resources available for more information on narrowbanding. The International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) developed an easy to understand narrowbanding brochure. You may download a copy, or request free print copies, by visiting the IMSA website at www.IMSAsafety.org and clicking on the Narrowband Brochure Available link on the front page. The FCC has established a special web page that contains complete narrowbanding information at http://transition.fcc.gov/pshs/public-safety-spectrum/narrowbanding.html. This site features a downloadable PowerPoint presentation that may be useful when discussing this topic in your community.

With fewer than six months before the narrowband deadline, I urge you to start the narrowbanding process immediately in order to make sure your community will be in compliance well before the federal deadline.

Chief Douglas M. Aiken (retired) is the former chief coordinator for Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid in Laconia, NH. He now serves as the Deputy Executive Director of the International Municipal Signal Association. Contact Doug at daiken@imsasafety.org or 603.253.3040.