Cost of federal radio mandates unclear

Jared Tucker

Roosevelt County and the city of Portales may or may not see a huge financial impact as the two prepare to make government-mandated changes to the emergency radio system, according to officials.

The regulations require all municipal governments and public safety radio systems to migrate to “narrow band” channels by the end of 2012. Portales Fire Chief Gary Nuckols said all mobile two-way radios will have to use different frequencies, which means reprogramming them.

Portales Dispatch Supervisor Keith Wattenberger said the city is “in good shape” to be able to comply with new regulations imposed by the Federal Communications Commission.

“Right now we are getting all of our licensing done. The first requisite on this is to make sure the licensing is done by January. Then we will inventory all of the radios in the county to see which ones may not handle the new … frequencies,” Wattenberger said.

Wattenberger said less than 5 percent of the radioes in police, fire and other vehicles may not be compatible with the change and would need to be replaced.

Other than that, he said, the only cost will be paying a communications company to program the existing radios. How much it will cost is unclear because that stage of the transition is still years away.

“The actual equipment doesn’t have to be switched over until 2013,” Wattenberger said.

Nuckols is concerned about the cost of reprogramming. Different agencies will switch frequencies at different times, and each time that happens, other agencies will have to reprogram their radios to communicate with the entity that just changed frequencies, he said.

However, while Nuckols isn’t being conservative with his cost estimates, he said no one will know the actual price tag until the time comes.

“Anybody’s guess is as good as mine as to what it’s going to cost, because we’ve never done this before,” he said.

According to the FCC’s website, the mandates are necessary because with the advancement of digital technology, more bandwidth is needed to operate not only radios, but devices that transfer video and data. With these mandates, public safety channel availability will quadruple without using more bandwidth, according to the website.

The mandates will eventually evolve to require an even narrower bandwidth on a digitally “trunked” system, according to the FCC website.

That system is controlled by a computer, and radio traffic transmitted using a trunked system is almost impossible to pick up with a traditional scanner, according to http://police-scanner.info.

PNT Senior Writer Argen Duncan contributed to this story.