A washingtonpost.com article

Paul L Rinaldo prinaldo at mindspring.com
Mon Jul 11 13:44:26 CDT 2005

Gang, FYI. Paul

> Spectrum Shift Threatens Radio Communication
> By Jonathan Abel
>  Emergency responders cross county lines every day in the greater
Washington region, and their radios go along, too. But some emergency
communications officials fear that a reshuffling of the radio spectrum will
threaten their ability to communicate across borders.
> In the late 1990s, police and fire agencies started to notice
interference on their radio channels from such commercial users as Nextel.
In response, the Federal Communications Commission decided last year to
authorize a nationwide swap in which public safety frequencies would move
to the lower end of the 800-megahertz band and commercial users would move
to the higher end. This three-year, $4.9 billion project began June 27 and
will be paid for by Nextel.
> The project involves moving thousands of police and fire radio systems to
new frequencies, and Tony Rose, Charles County's emergency communication
chief, worries that in the short term it will cripple the ability of
emergency responders to talk across borders.
> "When this is all said and done, rebanding will be one of the best things
done for public safety in a long time," Rose said. "But it's getting there
that's the problem."
> For example, Fairfax County is slated to change its system months before
many neighboring counties. "There are 15 jurisdictions and 40,000 radios,"
he said. "Do these 40,000 radios not talk to Fairfax [when it changes
over], or do we [reprogram] them once so they can talk to Fairfax and then
once again to talk to Prince William?"
> Grossly simplified, the problem can be somewhat equated to one friend
changing his cell phone number and another reprogramming his new number in
her own phone. It's as if 15 friends change their numbers, and each person
has thousands of phones to reprogram. Having a technician reprogram each
radio to recognize a new frequency each time a neighboring county switches
could be expensive; not changing them could cost lives if a firefighter
responding to a blaze in a neighboring county could not use his radio.
> "The question is how many first responders are placed at risk because
interoperability is down?" Rose asked.
> Officials at Nextel and the Transition Administrator, the independent
entity created by the FCC to oversee the rebanding, said there will be no
lapse in service.
> "We don't anticipate that there should be any situation when mutual aid
is off the air," said Joe Boyer, a member of the Transition Administrator
team. He said new technology coming from Nextel would make it easier to
switch the channels on the region's tens of thousands of radios. Anne
Arundel County and Alexandria police say they already have plans to use a
technology that can connect seemingly incompatible radio systems.
> Boyer said the specific logistics of the switch cannot be worked out
until each county starts negotiating with Nextel in the coming months. "The
reason we can't say, 'This is how you have to do it,' is because every area
of the country is different," Boyer said.
> Tim O'Regan, a spokesman for Nextel, said early planning and cross-county
coordination would be critical in preserving the ties. "When we get around
to negotiating with public safety, part of our discussions with them will
be to raise this matter. Do you have mutual aid channels? What are those?
Have you talked to those people about the fact that you're about to be
> Supporters and critics agree that what makes the transition so difficult
is the same thing that makes the plans for it difficult to judge: Nothing
this big has been carried out before.
> Maryland, Virginia and the District are all in the first wave of the
rebanding project, but each wave is divided into two stages, and most of
the public safety systems are in the second stage.
> Fairfax has the distinction of being in the first stage and will begin
negotiating with Nextel within weeks. The early changeover date means the
county is at risk of falling out of step with its neighbors, which worries
James Wadsworth, manager of the Fairfax County Radio Services Center.
> "This is the most significant thing that's ever hit the radio waves, ever
in the history of radio. It's coming at us like a freight train," he said.
> After meeting last month with representatives of Nextel, the FCC and the
Transition Administrator, Wadsworth was even more worried.
> "They said there would be no interruption of service," he recalled. "And
I said, 'Okay. Why are you only talking to Fairfax in this phase? Because
all the other jurisdictions would be affected when we change.' And they
didn't have an answer."
> He is not alone in saying planners vastly underestimated the magnitude
and complexity of rebanding the nation's public safety radio systems.
> Members of the Metropolitan Council of Governments' police communications
subcommittee are anxious not only about their ability to communicate across
borders, but also about the tight deadline and daunting logistics.
> When Montgomery County joined the 800-megahertz system in July 2003, it
was a year behind schedule, said subcommittee Chairman Alan Felsen, who
works for the Montgomery County police's technology division. If the
problem of operating across borders is going to be solved by every county's
switching over on the same day or week, as some have suggested, such delays
could tear up even the most coordinated project, especially when amplified
over a dozen or so jurisdictions, he said.
> "Even if you could say this is all going to go perfectly, I don't
understand how we can preserve the level of interoperability during the
process," Felsen said.
> But Robert Gurss, director of legal and government affairs for the
Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, said that once
planners sit down "with pencil and paper," they will be able to work
through the problems of organizing the switch. "This is not something that
everyone woke up eleventh-hour and realized there was a problem," he said.
> And Capt. Tim Bowman, of the Anne Arundel police department, said his
agency had already made plans to reprogram all the radios that need to be
fixed in stages according to their priority. "What it becomes is an
inconvenience," he said. "We have to pull them in and touch them. It's not
hard, it's just that there are so many of them."
>© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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