On Jan. 1, 2013, all public safety and business industrial land mobile radio systems operating in UHF/VHF channels (the 150 to 512 mHz radio bands) need to have switched from using 25 kHz efficiency technology to at least 12.5 kHz efficiency technology. Moving to a narrower bandwidth accommodates more users. This includes many transit agencies across the United States.
“The best way to describe it is, the UVF/VHF spectrum is like beach front property; it is fabulous, it has been used forever, it propagates really well, it has good in-building penetration, there’s a big robust market for it,” Roberto Mussenden, attorney advisor at the Federal Communications Commission, explains. “Everyone’s familiar with it, and so as demand increased and technologically advanced, manufacturers were able to develop radios that were able to use less bandwidth.”
Mussenden says this is not the first time there’s been a call for narrowbanding. Back in the 1960s there was a move to reduce VHF channels from 60 kHz to 30 kHz, and UHF channels from 50 kHz to 25 kHz.
While this deadline was set back in 2004, there are a number of agencies that have not yet made the change. With less than a year until the deadline, it’s crunch time. Alan Tilles, chairman of the Narrowbanding Committee for the Joint Council on Transit Wireless, says depending on the size of your agency, it could take years. “Denver and OCTA started three or four years ago. This is a mandate; this deadline has been imposed since 2004. This is nothing new,” he says.
Barry C. Einsig, Harris Corp. transportation market director and chair of the Joint Council on Transit Wireless, says, “Radio systems pre-1997 broadcast on channels that were 25 kHz wide. Spectrum is very valuable because there are so many new wireless technologies that people want to use the capabilities for. So, the FCC is constantly trying to help allocate new spectrum so people have it available for all these cool things that everybody wants. First they required manufacturers to do this; in 1997 all manufacturers were required to start building equipment that could work as efficiently — do the same job — in 12.5 kHz channels, half the amount of spectrum.”
Not Just Another Burden
Now it is time for the users to come into compliance with the new regulations. While initially the requirement to update your radio system may seem like just another burden, it does offer the opportunity to update your system in other ways, too. For example, while it is not required to switch from analog to digital, according to Tilles and Einsig, making that switch does add the capability to use the system for data and not just voice.
“There’s not a requirement to do that, but you gain a lot of functionality. It’s no different than your cell phone,” explains Einsig. “When you went from an analog cell phone — 10 or 15 years ago we carried around these big huge things and that was a cellphone and the radio was an analog radio in that cell phone and it didn’t do anything but voice. Then we went to digital and we started doing things like texting and some of the other cool things that you get with digital systems. There’s a lot of functionality you get with a digital system.”
In addition to the added options of sending data information over a digital system, it will also increase your interoperability with other agencies, whether that is the police and fire departments or other transit agencies in the area, Tilles says.
Tilles adds: “If there is a disaster in Chicago, and Chicago needs to be evacuated, how do we get those people out of Chicago? We’re going to send them on mass transit, right? Well in that event there needs to be coordination between the police, the fire folks, as well as the transit folks. OK? I need a bus over here. Or there’s a bus driving around and there’s a stickup on the bus; well, we want transit agencies to think about increasing their interoperability with police and fire folks so in the event of those types of emergencies they have access. Or if you’re thinking about making it a little bit bigger, you have the El in Chicago, which I think has its own police force, and we want those folks to be able to talk to the Chicago police in times of incidences. You want to leverage this opportunity to look at the interoperability that you do have and what you can do to have more.”