How Illinois Is Addressing the T-Band Conundrum
Tuesday, January 23, 2018 | Comments
The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) also directed the FCC to auction the UHF T-band spectrum at 470 – 512 MHz by 2021. In Illinois, 114 public-safety agencies have licensed frequencies in the T-band and are affected by the T-band giveback issue. These agencies range from the city of Chicago to small towns within the Chicago metropolitan area.

According to the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council’s (NPSTC) 2013 T-band report, Illinois agencies could spend nearly $800 million to replace their radio systems. To further complicate matters, it is still unclear to what spectrum all the affected agencies will relocate. In addition, state officials are concerned about the risk to public-safety communications systems in the most densely populated part of the state.

The Illinois FirstNet team, under the purview of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), held several meetings on the T-band last year. We realized that FirstNet most likely will not be ready to provide mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) services before the deadlines defined in the FirstNet law. In addition, requiring 114 public-safety agencies to change their LMR systems at the same time would be very disruptive, especially with the lack of LMR spectrum in the area. We were also concerned that many agencies were not aware of the requirement to vacate the T-band and the tight timelines and potential costs involved.

After touching on T-band during the FirstNet outreach sessions, IEMA decided to hold three T-band sessions in early March 2017 at locations around the Chicago metro area. We searched the FCC Universal Licensing System (ULS) database to find all the agencies with T-band licenses. We then sent an invitational message with background information to each agency by e-mail and U.S. Postal Service (USPS) mail. The package contained a copy of the legislation that created FirstNet, as well as NPSTC’s 2013 T-band report and 2016 update. We also sent the information to all the consolidated dispatch centers in the area that dispatch for T-band agencies.

Considering that the whole purpose of the meetings was to deliver bad news to the attendees, the meetings went well. While not every affected agency sent a representative, we had excellent turnout from the consolidated dispatch agencies. Our intent was to get agencies thinking about the issue and their options, especially considering the tight timeframe.

Developing a plan for all agencies would be difficult because of the varying sizes of the agencies and their radio systems. A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to work for agencies that have from 25 to 20,000 affected radios. Although we will assist agencies any way we can, planning is best done at the individual agency level or by groups of similar agencies.

We came up with four possible options that Illinois agencies might want to pursue. All have an element of risk and/or cost. There are other possibilities for the agencies, but following are the most likely:
1. Work with Congress to get the T-band giveback eliminated or at least pushed back for a decade at a minimum. Elimination of the giveback is the best option because there is no technical relationship between T-band and 700 MHz spectrum. An agency can use T-band and band 14 devices with little chance of interference. However, this option carries extremely high risk. If the process of getting the law changed is unsuccessful and agencies have not vacated in time, they will be in a bad position.
2. Wait for FirstNet to provide MCPTT service, and the agencies could move operations to that network. This is also risky. The standards for MCPTT, especially direct mode on Long Term Evolution (LTE), are not fully developed and are unproven. Other issues include whether the FirstNet network is fully public safety grade, the availability of devices that are public safety grade and costs to migrate to another network. In addition, this complicates interoperability by adding yet another dissimilar frequency and mode to the mix. As multiband and multimode radios become more prevalent, and with costs starting to come down, they are solving interoperable technology problems we’ve dealt with in the past. With MCPTT over LTE, we’ve added another communications silo that must be addressed.
3. Attempt to find new frequencies to move conventional T-band systems to. This would be difficult, as there are few available VHF or UHF frequencies that could be licensed in the Chicago metro area. The FCC set aside some 700 MHz frequencies for T-band users, but there are not nearly enough to cover all users. Additionally, those systems would probably require extensive re-engineering. T-band and 700 MHz have different propagation characteristics; it would not be a one-to-one swap in most cases. Any migration to a new system would naturally incur significant costs to an agency.
4. Join an existing statewide or regional trunked radio network. This has the advantage of spectrum efficiency and enhanced interoperability. Moving multiple conventional systems to a trunked system requires far fewer frequencies. However, trunked radio equipment is more expensive than conventional and in Illinois, could mean some form of monthly user fees. Finally, when agencies move from their own conventional system to a shared trunked system, there is always a sense of loss of control that some agencies have difficulty accepting.

All these options have costs and risks the agencies will be forced to bear. Most agencies are cash strapped and can’t afford a whole system replacement. Budgeting cycles take one to two years, and procurement cycles can take the same amount of time. Add to that the time required to actually design, build and implement a replacement, and it becomes apparent that time is rapidly running out.

Agencies affected by the T-band issue need to have discussions with their U.S. representative and senators, as well as their state legislators and other local officials, about the potential costs and serious operational implications of this issue. FirstNet will be a tremendous addition to public safety’s communications tools. However, FirstNet should not negatively affect any agencies’ use of their existing communications technologies, especially considering that they work well.


Bill Springer is the Illinois FirstNet system architect and has 38 years of experience in public-safety communications, including radio, telephone and data networks. He can be reached at billspringer99@outlook.com.



 
 
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Comments
On 1/25/18, Peter von Bergen said:
I am still not quite sure what value the T-band could have to make someone want to bid on the channels if put to auction. T-band is much lower than the 800 MHz channels used in older cell services. In addition, the 2012 law did not require shutting down the commercial users on T-band. How would leaving them in operation affect any bidder's plans?

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