Opportunistic Narrowbanding

While the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) narrowbanding mandate may seem like one more bothersome chore, some school officials view it as a way to upgrade safety and security across the district.

“We’ve viewed the mandate as an opportunity to develop a district-wide communication system,” says Brian Lichtenberger, director of operations with Township High School District 214 in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago. “We’re putting in a radio system that will give us two-way narrowband radio communications plus the ability to add software upgrades for texting, GPS and other tools later.”

According to Paul Timm, president of RETA Security, Inc. in Lemont, Ill., more and more pre-K-12 schools are using two-way radios. “It is an ideal form of emergency communications,” he says. “You can press one button to communicate with a group of people across the property — or the district.”

According to the FCC mandate all handheld and portable land mobile radio systems, also referred to as “Part 90” systems, operating at 25 kHz in certain frequency bands must convert to 12.5 kHz before Jan. 1, 2013. The affected frequencies are:
  • VHF: 15 – 174 MHz
  • UHF: 421 – 512 MHz
Cutting the bandwidth in half will reduce congestion and enable more radios to use the two frequency ranges.

Many digital, as well as analog, radios can simply undergo a software upgrade to satisfy the mandate. Even so, radios older than seven years may have to be replaced. “We’re discovering that some radios in the marketplace are so antiquated that they cannot be upgraded,” says Paul Moore, general manager of the Atlanta offices of Dallas-based BearCom Wireless Worldwide.

The upgrade process is relatively simple, continues Moore. An authorized third party — a BearCom professional, for instance — attaches the radio to a computer with a set of programming cables and installs an upgrade software package.

Owners must also acquire a new license for each upgraded radio. “We apply for the license on behalf of our customers,” Moore says. “We apply to the FCC online. It can take as long as 12 weeks from the time we apply for the license to arrive. However, the FCC gives BearCom (and other authorized service providers) the authority to install the narrowband upgrade in anticipation of the license being sent by the FCC.

Other issues may come into play as well. According to Moore, the narrower 12.5 kHz frequency band cannot penetrate steel and concrete as efficiently as the broadband signal. As a result, many schools will have to buy repeaters so that the radios can communicate across entire campuses.

The Township High School District 214 System
At Township High School District 214, Lichtenberger notes that his district’s new system will enable radio-to-radio communication and radio-to- repeater-to-radio communication.

In addition, the repeaters the district is buying will use Internet Protocol (IP) to communicate with repeaters at other district locations over the Internet. In other words, radios on one campus will be able to talk to radios on any other campus across the district.

“We’re installing portable radios in all of our maintenance trucks so that the maintenance staff will be reachable anywhere,” says Lichtenberger.

In the event of a district-wide emergency, the superintendent uses the system to broadcast a message to every radio in the district.

Finally, a wireless backup system will kick in if the network goes offline for some reason. “Each building will have an antenna that will be tuned in such a way that it can reach the next location."

The Package
Lichtenberger says the district is purchasing three repeaters for each of the district’s seven buildings plus three kinds of radios:
  • 56 radios. Each of the district’s seven schools will receive eight basic radios. The athletic coaches, trainers and physical education teachers will have access to these radios for competitions and classes. For away competitions, the radios will enable bus-to-bus communications.
  • 350 radios for the security and IT staff.
  • 350 advanced radios with small screens for administrators, supervisors and maintenance staff. These radios can be upgraded for texting and GPS at some time in the future through software apps available in an app store.
Lichtenberger says the district has been working on the system with Motorola and Chicago Communications, one of Motorola’s two-way radio dealers since last summer. “We plan to install the infrastructure and repeaters this summer,” he says. “In August, just before school starts, we’ll go live.”