The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the process of implementing a country-wide rebanding agreement with Sprint Nextel to change radio frequencies for 911 systems, and Plymouth Township is scrambling to cover the costs.
At the June 6 Plymouth Township Council meeting, Joseph Lawrence cited the incredible growth of cell phone use as the cause for the FCC’s mandate to change bandwidth. Since the 1990s, cell phone companies have increasingly dominated the radio spectrum, causing interference with frequencies used by emergency services.
According to the FCC’s website, “To address a growing problem of harmful interference to 800 megahertz (MHz) public safety communication systems caused by high-density commercial wireless systems, the Commission in July 2004 adopted a comprehensive plan to reconfigure the band. This plan is designed to protect the lives of first responders and other emergency personnel, and is a top priority of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.”
Rebanding and channel swaps have been ongoing since 2005.
Depending on where you live, rebanding may have already occurred or will happen some time in the near future, as the timeline has been delayed several times.
Police Chief Lawrence said they “will have to buy new radios due to the rebanding required by the FCC.”
“It’s a 15 year old system that was supposed to last 10 years,” he said. “We have no choice.”
Rebanding, which would improve emergency communications, will take approximately three to four years to be implemented. A big part of that time frame includes the funding, because changing the bandwidths also requires retuning communication towers and updating technology.
The council unanimously agreed that the rebanding needs to be done and that the technology needs to be updated. However, “Only Sprint Nextel offers the necessary technology, so we are forced to buy their expensive equipment,” said one council member.
During the 1980s and 90s, Nextel (now Sprint Nextel) created a nation-wide network by buying up thousands of individual licenses for frequencies within the 800 MHz range.
According to Chief Lawrence, Sprint Nextel will charge $850 per radio per year, with a total cost of $60 million for this upgrade. “They have pigeonholed us,” said another council member.
Production of the widely used Motorola Centracom Gold Elite dispatch consoles will cease this year, and the Motorola SmartZone 4.1 system will soon be obsolete, with technical support expected to discontinue by the end of 2012, according to a report done by ACM Telecom, a telephone communications company in Philadelphia.
It is yet to be determined when emergency radios currently being used by police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel would begin getting rebanded, and how it’s going to be funded.
Chief Lawrence proposed a couple cost-sharing options.
“The county’s getting loans at a 4 percent interest rate,” he said, “and we can get Homeland Security grants.”
According to FEMA, there’s $526 million available in Fiscal Year 2011 for State Homeland Security grants. Homeland Security Grants are a primary funding mechanism for building and sustaining national preparedness capabilities. These grants fund a range of preparedness activities, including planning, organization, equipment purchase, training, exercises, management and administration.