$24 million radio plan pitched to Delaware County

By Matthew J. Perry
The Delaware County Board of Supervisors received a sobering report last Wednesday on the radio system used by emergency services and police.
While there are no immediate, glaring problems that suggest lives may be at stake, county officials are facing the daunting challenge of necessary, expensive work, with initial estimates of as much as $24 million, upgrades and, worse, a looming deadline.
Dan Smith, a representative for Kimball, an engineering consulting firm, described a situation in which it is imperative for the county to act on its own behalf, since a plan for a statewide wireless radio network has come to a halt. Meanwhile, FCC regulations likely will mandate that all counties upgrade to newer technology within a few years.
“What’s changed are the expectations,” for a system, Smith said. While the county’s equipment still functions, it is old, and it does not provide the mobile radio coverage that is being established as the national standard.
At present, the fire departments rely on a low-band frequency while the sheriff’s department and EMS services employ high-band.
The message gets out, but there is insufficient capacity on the existing channels, and the low-band frequencies can be blurred by atmospheric disturbance or other signals. Also, the system does not allow for inter-operability, which Smith described as ‘the big buzzword following 9/11.” It means it is often difficult for departments to talk with one another, if not impossible. Also, there are no encryption capacities, which keep scanners out of information flow and are of special importance on police channels.
“The technology you have was hot 30 to 40 years ago,” Smith explained. “But it’s not reliable anymore.”
Rich Bell, county director of Emergency Services, concurred. “Our vendor buys parts off of E-Bay,” he said. However, “there are lots of problems. The vendor does a great job finding band-aids, but the band-aids are running thin.” Bell agreed that soon, it would be impossible to even find parts for many systems.

FCC requirements
The system’s age is not the only factor that has set the clock ticking. Smith reminded the supervisors that the FCC is intent on selling off low frequencies by 2013 as radio, like television, moves over to digital technology. Delaware County, a ‘secondary user’ by FCC classification, will have to upgrade to a higher frequency range to keep pace. This will require a first step of looking for secure frequencies, followed by infrastructure upgrades, mostly new, higher towers.
Kimball’s report described three options for the upgrade, the cheapest of which carried an estimated cost of $17 million. Smith suggested that a system on the highest frequency—700 Mhz, with a cost roughly $24 million—was the most viable option. “700 is a clean frequency,” Smith said, now that television signals have gone digital.
In the main, the board’s questions addressed two immediate concerns: that the new system would be declared obsolete soon after being implemented, and that the cost would be justified. Smith was confident that a well-chosen upgrade would stay current for many years. Those who wondered if there would be any federal money available to offset the county’s burden were discouraged.
Masonville’s Craig Du-Mond asked rhetorically, “What if we do nothing?” Smith did not mince words: the FCC would either pull the county’s license, contest it, or put the county on notice until the changes were made.
Satisfied, DuMond called on his colleagues to be proactive. “There’s nothing more dangerous than running into a building with no communication,” he said.
Without an efficient system, he concluded, “Too many people’s lives are at risk.”
Smith also advised the board that 2013 is not so far away. He argued that it would take a year to plan the system, a year to make the purchases and most of a third year to install them. “You’re in a pretty critical time frame right now.”
By the end of the presentation, it had been agreed that the first step was to search for and secure new frequencies. The questions of funding were still wide open, and still on many minds when Smith wrapped up his presentation. Chairman Jim Eisel struck a rueful note. “Thanks for all the good news,” he said.