T-Band: Fears Rise Over FCC Mandate

(Courtesy Aaron Aupperlee, Trib Total Media, published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 11:26 p.m.)

A federal mandate forcing Allegheny County public safety agencies to switch radio frequencies by 2023 could cost
millions of dollars and cause catastrophic disruptions to emergency services, a county official said Wednesday.

These fears are being realized as the Federal Communications Commission, tasked with enforcing the switch,
closed public comment Tuesday on the mandate and will determine how to proceed.  “We are feverishly asking the FCC to reconsider,” said Alvin Henderson, chief of the county Department of Emergency Services. “We’re saying it is catastrophic to our operations.”

The mandate does not affect the City of Pittsburgh or several surrounding counties. Congress tucked a provision inside a 102-page bill passed in 2012 to extend tax cuts and emergency unemployment benefits that forces some public safety agencies to vacate radio frequencies between 470 and 512 megahertz, a spectrum known as the T-Band. The FCC intends to auction off the T-Band frequencies to private companies, such as wireless providers, to develop jobs, generate revenue and offset the cost of relocating public safety agencies to other bandwidths, officials said.

Congress set aside the 700 MHz range to relocate the emergency service agencies and allocated as much as $7 billion to build a national public safety broadband network, said David Buchanan, chair of the National Public Safety Telecommunication Council’s Spectrum Management Committee.  “It got in at the last minute in that bill and caught everyone in public safety by surprise,” Buchanan said. Public safety agencies of 11 major metropolitan areas, including Allegheny and Butler counties, use T-Band
frequencies. Switching would cost $5.9 billion nationwide and $203.4 million in Western Pennsylvania, according to a report released in March by the telecommunication council.

Auctioning off the T-Band will not cover the costs to public service agencies, the report stated. Because of the expense, the lack of alternative frequencies and the disruption to vital public safety services, the report concluded, “implementing the T-Band legislation is not feasible, provides no public interest benefit, and the matter should be revisited by Congress.”

The FCC declined to comment on the report.

The hills and valleys of Allegheny County would require new towers and new satellite receiver sites in the move to higher frequencies, Henderson said. If the county moves to the 700 or 800 MHz frequencies, communication with other counties and Pittsburgh become difficult because Pittsburgh and most surrounding counties operate on a lower bandwidth.  Henderson did not feel comfortable in the county’s ability to complete the transition by 2023, let alone pay for it.  It’s unknown how much federal money will aid the transition.  “It could easily run hundreds of millions of dollars, when we look at taking all our fire, EMS and police agencies and move them to either 700- or 800-megahertz frequencies,” Henderson said. “Where would (county
Executive Rich Fitzgerald) come up with hundreds of millions of dollars, I don’t know.”

Westmoreland County spent $23 million in 2005 to move its emergency service radios to the 800 MHz spectrum, said Michael Brooker, director of the county’s Department of Public Safety. Armstrong, Indiana and Fayette counties have either switched or plan to switch to the higher frequency band. Lawrence and Greene counties operate in a spectrum below the T-Band.  Butler County commissioners approved $3,450 last week to apply for 10 new frequencies to replace 12 the county will lose because of the mandate.