Steep hills are no friend to radio waves - and a federal mandate to narrow bandwidth hasn’t sweetened the relationship between geography and technology in Crawford County.
Implementation of a Federal Communications Commission mandate has translated into the adoption of narrow-banding radio technology across the country for users operating in the 150-174 and 450-512 MHz range, dropping transmission frequency ranges to 12.5 kHz or narrower from a previously allowed 25 kHz. The intent of the mandate is to create additional channel capacity within the same radio spectrum, specifically within the frequency ranges employed by emergency personnel and municipalities.
For a county that already had spots where reception was difficult, narrow-banding seems to have exacerbated the problem.
“I think it’s affected (reception),” said Crawford County Sheriff Dale McCullick. “We don’t have the same power.”
“There are areas everywhere throughout the county where the radios don’t work well – the same places cell phones have problems,” McCullick explained. “It’s hard to hear and transmit.”
Gays Mills, Soldiers Grove, and Wauzeka are some of the worst affected areas, according to Roger Martin, the Crawford County Emergency Management Director, though both he and McCullick stressed that there are pockets scattered all over the county where the problems exist.
The county has been dealing with transmission and reception problems for some time. The federal mandate required the narrow-banding change occur by Jan. 1, 2013. The county made its switch a few months prior.
The change, under discussion since the 1990s, was mandated in 2004 in order to give everyone time to plan and implement the change.
The purpose of the mandate was threefold.
One, it increases the number of channels that can exist on a particular frequency. Depending on neighboring use of the frequency, that may mean increasing the available bandwidth anywhere from two-thirds to just over double.
Two, it creates an economy of scale. If the market is constrained to one technology, in this case narrow-band radio equipment, it creates greater demand and drives down the price for that technology.
The third factor is interoperability. Having neighboring agencies using technologies that may not be compatible, wide and narrow-band radios, creates the possibility of communication failures, an increasing concern as communication continues to move to wireless technologies.
How big is the impact of this change on Crawford County?
“It’s significant,” said Martin.
“If you are having trouble with the radio, you have to change frequencies, use a cell phone, or get to a place with better reception,” Martin said.
“Everyone is working together until we can get better communications,” Martin added.
The county is working with communications technicians to make the four existing communication towers, located in Rolling Ground, Seneca, Wauzeka, and Prairie du Chien, more efficient.
“We started with the control tower in Prairie du Chien,” Martin said. “We have done some filtering to reduce interference and moved antennae to improve reception.”
The work on that tower is not yet complete, nor, according to Martin, has it made a noticeable difference at this point.
The next step involves seeking upgrading the four towers to link them by microwave, allowing them to broadcast simultaneously, an effort that may be aided by the grant of $237,000 received from FEMA last week.
If that doesn’t work, Martin explained, the county would need to install two to four new radio towers at approximately $250,000 per tower, not including land acquisition costs.
Looming over efforts to mitigate communication problems arising from the current mandate is a further narrow-banding, to 6.25 kHz, proposed to take affect in 2018.
“There is no equipment in the county capable of (operating on) the 6.25 kHz narrowband,” Martin said. “If the federal government is going to keep mandating changes, they are going to need to fund it.”
Neither the county nor its municipalities are financially in a position to change all their equipment every five years, according to Martin. Fortunately for the county, the 2018 date is not yet firmly established, nor according to a source at the FCC is it likely to be established soon.
That source said switching to an even narrower band will only come after the agency has ensured that the municipalities and county and state governments have had a chance to recoup their investment in making the change, by which time, larger cities in need of greater bandwidth will have essentially tested the technology that needs to be developed in order to make the change.
The steps to begin the process of creating a new mandate to narrower banding have not been started at this point.
While the FCC does not provide funding, the source at the FCC did say that they actively work with other federal agencies to ensure funding is available and they work to direct local and state government to those funders. The agency is only now beginning to have conversations about discussing when pursuing such a mandate might be feasible.