High Costs Preventing Conformance to Emergency Narrowband Deadline

Published August 29, 2011

The Federal Communication Commission’s mandate that all U.S. emergency responder radios must switch to digital, narrowband systems by 2013 has prompted some local governments to complain the costs of complying are prohibitive.

The FCC mandate is the result of a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission, established in 2002 following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, and requires that all emergency responders communicate on the same radio frequency. Noncompliant responders will face fines or loss of radio capability.

Some local agencies such as Mercer County, New Jersey put the price tag of the switch at an exorbitant $4.5 million. Others claim it will only cost $20,000.

‘Extremely Aggressive’
Mercer County officials say the investment will save the county’s administrative offices—including the sheriff, prosecutor, transportation department, parks commission, emergency management, central services, central communications (dispatch), and Mercer County Community College—money over time and will enhance public safety by consolidating systems currently operating over different radio channels. But others question the amount of the requested funds, noting other systems have been built for substantially less.

“The $20,000 figure that some have cited seems very low, but the $4.5 million figure seems extremely aggressive,” said Ari Zoldan, CEO of Quantum Networks, New York. A more realistic figure is somewhere between $200,000 and $400,000, so without looking at the exact details of the plan, there does seem to be a lot of extra padding in it. But they have until 2013 to sort it out.”

Scott Testa, an assistant professor of business administration at Cabrini College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, agrees with Zoldan. “That figure seems fairly high to me,” he said in an email. “There are a lot of issues with some of these FCC mandates—they keep changing the deadlines, requirements, etc.—that might be more of an issue than outright corruption. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Lacking Technical Background
Though the $4.5 million figure is high, it may be a case of lack of technical expertise rather than a money grab, said Zoldan. “There are a lot of nontechnical people requesting the quotes. They don’t have a background in the technology.”

The widely varying cost estimates may be due to unfamiliarity with what it costs to consolidate such systems rather than being a sign of corruption, Zoldan explains. Good cost management comes from planning and management as well as from basic knowledge about the technologies in question, he notes.

“Even the vendors may not be up on certain issues,” Testa added, again pointing to the moving-target nature of FCC stipulations. “It’s not always real clear what has to be done.”

Tight Deadlines
Seeking funding from the New Jersey legislature, however, will more than likely be difficult for Mercer County, particularly with New Jersey Gov. Christie taking a hard line on many spending issues and the recent national debate over government debt, said Testa.

Any entity that doesn’t implement the system by the 2013 deadline can be fined under the FCC mandate. But Zoldan says he thinks Mercer County and others have enough time to implement the new systems.

Testa notes the FCC has a history of extending some deadlines without penalty as long as significant progress is being made. However, he points out, the FCC could choose to stick to the strict deadline and fine any entity that doesn’t meet it.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.