Get Your 2-Way Radios Ready

Thousands of people flock to your campus for the big game. A forensic patient escapes from his room during treatment. An active shooter opens fire in a classroom. Are you prepared to effectively communicate with the necessary agencies or personnel to handle these scenarios?

The requirements of two-way radio systems are rapidly changing and it may be time to reevaluate your equipment. Switching to digital two-way radios that offer a slew of features will improve safety on your campus.

Acquiring Project 25-compliant radios will allow you to  communicate with first responders in the event of an emergency. In fact, your outdated radio system could be holding you back from achieving a safer campus and could put you at odds with federal guidelines sooner than you may think.  

Several mandates set forth by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have already started affecting how radios work. In less than a decade, FCC licensees could be required to use all-digital systems. And if you don’t comply with new narrowbanding parameters by 2013, your campus could be left without a working radio system.

Failure to Comply Could Result in Fines, Loss of License

In December of 2004, the FCC ruled that all public safety, industrial and business licensees must switch to radio systems that utilize at least 12.5 kHz efficiency technology by January 1, 2013. This will allow radio users to operate within the FCC’s new technical parameters – known as narrowbanding – which allow for a more efficient use of VHF and UHF land mobile frequency bands.

Narrowbanding will increase the number of radio channels available for use by reducing the amount of bandwidth used by each channel. Ultimately, each channel will be reduced in bandwidth by a half – meaning that twice as many channels will exist on each spectrum.

For campuses or hospitals using analog radio equipment, narrowbanding could significantly reduce their equipment’s ability to work in fringe areas; in some cases, drastically reducing radio coverage. However, a campus does not need to have digital equipment in order to comply with the FCC narrowbanding mandate.  

“Basically, this affects every commercial radio user in both VHF and UHF in North America,” explains Vision Communication Co. Major Account Executive, Anton Johnson. “There are a finite number of radio frequencies in the spectrum and there are an infinite number of users. [Narrowbanding] allows us to compress the bandwidth to fit all these radio users into this finite set of frequencies.”

Currently, VHF and UHF frequency bands are impacted by this disproportionate user-to-frequency ratio. It has become difficult for users to expand their systems or implement new ones due to the lack of space. To alleviate frequency congestion, users will be required to switch to one voice path on a 12.5 kHz channel or two voice paths on a 25 kHz channel. Or, they can opt to achieve greater than required capability by operating in a 6.25 kHz efficiency mode.  

Since Jan. 1, agencies operating on wideband systems have not been allowed to expand their coverage area or replace old equipment with wideband-compatible equipment due to an FCC mandate. In addition, licensees cannot renew their licenses until they have been modified for narrowbanding.     

In fact, if your campus is not fully narrowbanding-compliant by 2013, you could face monetary fines or the loss of your FCC radio license.

Older Radios Can Be Reprogrammed for Narrowbanding

Two-way radio users are not required to switch to digital radios in order to comply with the narrowbanding mandate. If purchasing a new digital radio system is out of the question, it is possible to reprogram your current system to work on narrower frequencies.

“Many of the radios that are out there right now can be reprogrammed for narrowbanding,” says Jessica Pourciau from Motorola Solutions. “The ones that can’t are generally 20-plus years old.”

Motorola users, she says, can bring their radios to Motorola support centers to be reprogrammed. The company also sells reprogramming software for experienced users and offers classes on reprogramming.

However, Pourciau cautions that even if your radio system can be reprogrammed, it might not be in your best interest to do so.

“It might be 10 to 15 years old and you may no longer be able to get service on that radio,” she says. Analog radios can also face coverage problems on narrowbanded frequencies. In some cases, paging systems could cease working altogether, requiring extra equipment to function.

“Narrowbanding will affect coverage slightly, but this can be compensated for in adjustments and improvements in amplifier and antenna systems,” says Joe Watts, product manager for Kenwood USA Corp., Communications Sector. Kenwood’s NEXEDGE digital business radios can extend coverage range depending on band, power and topography, he says.

Future Systems Must Be Digital

The tentative date proposed by the FCC for the switch from analog to digital radios is 2018. The switch has not yet been mandated and this date is subject to change.

“So the logic, obviously, is don’t buy a radio that isn’t digital,” says Johnson. “Digital radios can be programmed to go analog, but analog radios can’t be programmed to go digital.”

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