Rule Change Affects First Responders

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First responders and municipalities that rely on walkie-talkie-style devices for their communications needs face a looming deadline for compliance with a federal rule that forces them to update their equipment or face stiff penalties. And while they’ve had years to prepare, some are scrambling to bring themselves into compliance.

“There are communities that for some reason have their head in the sand,” said Doug Aiken, deputy executive director of the International Municipal Signal Association, which keeps government entities updated on new equipment and procedures for communications systems. “They think that something’s going to change. But the truth is that this has been out there for years. There’s really no excuse.”

In fact, the rule in question was adopted back in 1998 by the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with managing the airwaves that carry everything from television and radio signals to cellular services and the familiar walkie-talkies that in FCC parlance are known as “land mobile” devices. It’s these devices that are subject to the new rule, commonly called the “narrowband” mandate.

The rule requires all public safety and industrial/business land mobile radio systems operating in the 150-174 megahertz and 421-470 MHz bands to cease using 25 kilohertz efficiency technology and begin using at least 12.5 kHz efficiency technology, or a “narrower” band, so the FCC can free up space for other services. The deadline for compliance is Jan. 1, 2013. Some frequencies are exempt (see sidebar).

Despite the long lead time, operators still using devices that do not comply must act now or face potential enforcement, said Roberto Mussenden, an attorney in the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. Sanctions range from a mandatory correction plan to monetary fines, he said. And the potential fines are severe; they can range anywhere from $16,000 per day of continued operation of noncompliant equipment, or up to $112,500 for a single violation or failure to act.

“Very old equipment, older than 1998, will have to be replaced,” Mussenden said. The most likely way of getting caught is for a noncompliant user to become the subject of an interference complaint by another user, he said. But he noted that many newer radios can be brought into compliance with a simple software upgrade. Users simply need to change software settings to indicate that the radio will now operate on a bandwidth of 12.5 kHz instead of 25 kHz.

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© 2012, Transport Topics Publishing Group. All rights reserved.

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