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Maine businesses face a Jan. 1, 2013 narrowbanding deadline

Posted May 16, 2012, at 2:17 p.m.

The countdown clock is ticking for two-way-radio users: The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that on Jan. 1, 2013, such radios must operate on narrowband frequencies. Anyone caught using a wideband frequency after that date could face hefty fines.

The FCC mandated in December 2004 that two-way-radio frequencies must change from 25 kHz bandwidth to 12.5 kHz bandwidth by next New Year’s Day. Because “the [radio] spectrum has gotten crowded over the years,” the FCC wants “to squeeze as many voice-and-data channels for each frequency,” said Gerry Ouellette, who owns Atlantic Communications Inc. in Hermon.

Although 7½ years have passed since the FCC mandate, there are still many in the public and private sectors who have not made that switch. Many small towns and private businesses are in danger of missing the January 2013 deadline.

Small towns are a major concern, said John Kingsbury, president of Whitten’s 2-Way Service in Brewer. Volunteer fire departments, for example, are already cash-strapped, so the radios are on the back burner.

“It’s affecting them the most because the budgets are limited,” Kingsbury said. “Do they get a new fire truck or do they meet the federal requirements to upgrade the radios?”

“For some of these fire departments, it’s been difficult to come up with the funds,” Ouellette said.

There are a few exemptions to the narrowbanding requirement:

• Marine radios, which need to stay consistent with international regulations;

• CB radios;

• Recreational walkie-talkies;

• Tone pagers that “receive only” (but not audio pagers like fire departments use);

• Cell phones and cordless phones.

Every other device that constitutes a two-way radio must be converted. Upgrading is not optional, and the FCC reportedly could hit violators with fines of up to $10,000 per incident per day.

Some businessowners either do not know about the FCC mandate or believe that the FCC will not catch violators in Maine. “I had a customer with 40-plus [radios] saying, ‘We’ll take the risk,’” Kingsbury said.

However, FCC investigators will look for violators after Jan. 1. The FCC has also mandated that repair shops cannot service 25 kHz radios after that date.

Besides public-safety agencies, every private business that uses two-way radios must upgrade or replace them and modify its FCC license. Among such businesses are motor carriers, construction companies, and logging contractors.

Replacing wideband radios is expensive; “a new radio averages $400-$600,” and an agency or business that owns a tower-mounted repeater could spend $3,000 to $5,000 to replace it, Ouellette said.

But there is good news. Since 1998, manufacturers have primarily produced dual-mode, 25 kHz/12.5kHz radios. “A lot of customers ended up with radios that can be upgraded easily” to narrowband, Ouellette said.

Upgrading involves a technician reprogramming a dual-mode radio with a laptop computer and the appropriate software. There is a cost involved, but customers will pay less to upgrade existing dual-mode radios than purchase new narrowband radios.

Kingsbury said there has been one pleasant surprise with narrowbanding.

“We were always told there would be a 20-to-25-percent loss of range when you go to narrowband,” he said. “We’re finding out that that isn’t the case.”

Ninety percent of his customers have seen no range reduction. The only ones having problems are those who already had scratchy coverage. Problems tend to be with portable radios; the solution is to add repeaters to a tower or install repeaters in vehicles.

“We’re finding that we’re not losing a lot of coverage, noticeably,” Ouellette said. “The newer radios perform better.”

Businesses that convert to digital two-way radios — existing dual-mode radios can be analog or digital — will enjoy some benefits not available with analog. “Digital allows you to transfer data,” Ouellette said. “It allows for GPS, vehicle tracking, Voice Over Internet.

“It gives you a level of privacy,” he said, referring to digital two-way. “We find the range is slightly better.”

Each FCC license that an agency or business possesses must be modified to show its compliance with the narrowbanding mandate. License updates can be submitted online or by mail, but either way, they should be submitted ASAP; the FCC is currently backlogged 90 to 120 days on processing license changes. As latecomers file, that backlog will likely lengthen.

“We have hundreds of customers, and their licenses need to be modified,” Ouellette said.

Kingsbury continues to worry about small towns that desperately need radio service, but which will face bigger problems if they don’t make the change. He suggests that towns band together to order equipment to share in a quantity discount. It may be tough to convince the taxpayers, but that they’ll understand when their emergency services are unable to properly communicate during a crisis.

“Their local fire departments need their support,” he said.

Shops that sell and service two-way radios will be busy this year. “The last three months (of 2012) will be interesting for me,” Ouellette said. “I think there’s going to be some concern whether they (two-way radio owners) can make the deadline or not.”

To learn more about narrowbanding and its requirements, log onto www.narrowbandinglaw.com, offered by the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker, P.A. There is no charge to use the Web site, which is an excellent information source.

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