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Police radio dead spots cell phones { August 18 2003 }

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Wireless Growth Hinders Rescuers
FCC Vows to Fix Radio Interference

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2003; Page A01

The explosive growth of the mobile phone industry has crowded and tangled the nation's airwaves to such an extent that wireless company signals are increasingly interfering with emergency radio frequencies used by police and firefighters, public safety agencies said.

Emergency departments across the country -- including some in the District, Maryland and Virginia -- report unsettling stories of officers who can't call for backup, dispatchers who can't relay suspect descriptions and firefighters who can't request ambulances because of radio "dead spots" believed to be caused by wireless phone interference.

"Just by the grace of God or good luck, we've been able to avoid a major problem," said Gary Manougian, a police officer in Portland, Ore. "But I don't think we can go on like this indefinitely."

The Federal Communications Commission has vowed to find a solution, even if it has to reorganize a large swath of the radio spectrum -- a massive and controversial task, potentially costing hundreds of millions of dollars and taking years to complete, industry officials said.

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell said in a speech last week that "it is one of my top priorities . . . to ensure that public safety has the reliable spectrum resources it needs to do its lifesaving work." He warned that solving the problem "may be one of the most challenging spectrum policy proceedings" to come before the agency.

No death or catastrophe has been attributed to such communication problems, said Robert Gurss, director of legal and government relations for the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International, a nonprofit organization representing emergency communication officials.

But dozens of agencies large and small -- from New York City to Androscoggin County, Maine -- have registered complaints, and one public safety coalition estimates that interference is a problem in at least 27 states.

The issue has its roots in the 1970s, well before the popularity of mobile phones, when the FCC assigned channels in the 800 megahertz band to public safety departments. In the 1980s, wireless companies began to acquire, with federal approval, space adjacent to the emergency radio frequencies. Soon, the wireless phone industry started to grow. Last year, there were an estimated 140 million wireless phone subscribers, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association said.

An increasing number of public safety agencies moved into the 800 megahertz band as well, and as the agencies and wireless companies occupied more spectrum space, airwave conflicts intensified.

Communication officials said many factors cause interference. A common problem arises when a police officer, for example, is close to a wireless phone company transmitter but far from a tower that carries the signals for emergency radios. In that situation, the wireless phone tower overpowers the officer's radio, rendering it useless, the officials said.

To solve the problem, the FCC is considering reshuffling channels in the 800 megahertz band. The idea is to separate the wireless companies from the public safety departments, so they inhabit different ends of the band.

None of the companies is doing anything wrong, FCC officials said. As organized, the spectrum, which is a limited resource, simply can't accommodate everyone.

There are several wireless companies operating in the 800 megahertz band, including Verizon, AT&T Wireless and Cingular, the FCC said. Most of the complaints that the agency has received have been caused by Reston-based Nextel Communications Inc. because many of its band frequencies abut those of emergency radios.

Mindful of the mounting pressure, Nextel has teamed with a broad coalition of partners -- including the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International and the International Association of Chiefs of Police -- to develop a proposal to reorganize the spectrum, which, if approved, would give Nextel some prime real estate in the airwaves.

Nextel also has offered to pay $850 million for the cost associated with reshuffling the channels if its plan is adopted. The company's proposal is just one of many the FCC is reviewing.

Many communication experts said that a complete reorganization of the spectrum is unnecessary, too expensive and too time-consuming. Meanwhile, public safety officials said the situation is urgent. "If we don't fix this now, it's only going to get worse," Gurss said.

Anne Arundel County police officer Patrick A. Fisher said he ran into the problem one day this spring. The call from his partner that came over the radio was crackled and fuzzy, and Fisher could make out only two words: "start . . . fire." Fisher sensed a tone of urgency in the other officer's voice and rushed to the street he knew his colleague was patrolling.

When he arrived, he saw the other officer futilely fighting a house fire with a garden hose. Fisher reached for his radio, but its reception was too weak until he drove a few blocks away. Finally, firefighters arrived. "If it was another couple of minutes," Fisher said, "the whole side of the house would have been gone."

About two years ago, police officers in Portland were chasing a man after a carjacking attempt when their radios went dead. The man ran through a suburban area, then hid in the woods. About a dozen officers dropped into formation around him. "We were trying to set up a perimeter, but our radios wouldn't work," Manougian said. Some officers had to run into nearby homes to call in information to the dispatcher.

Denver has identified at least 24 dead spots in its communications system, and the police officers know where they are, said Dana Hansen, superintendent of communications for the city's police department. It's particularly troubling, she said, that many of the dead spots happen to be at major intersections where many traffic accidents occur.

When Fairfax County first purchased an 800 megahertz radio system, it had interference problems, said Mernie Fitzgerald, a county spokeswoman. Nextel and Cingular agreed to reconfigure their systems in the county, and they were able to solve the problem, she said. "We haven't had any problems in the last two years," she said.

Montgomery County recently spent $175 million on a communications system that includes an 800 megahertz radio network. The county took care to ensure there wouldn't be any interference problems, said Lt. Dallas Lipp of the county fire and rescue department. The county's system is on a different part of the spectrum than local wireless phone networks, he said, so its system is less susceptible to problems.

"But we're always monitoring how our system is performing," Lipp said.

The District filed an interference complaint last spring with the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International. Now, having been awarded a $40 million grant from the federal government, the city plans to build seven transmitters and receivers to strengthen its radio system's signal.

Anne Arundel County plans to spend $15 million over five years to build more towers and to update its equipment. And last year, county officials passed a zoning law that required wireless companies to certify that their signals would not interfere with the county's radio system.

Cingular asked the FCC to strike down the ordinance. Last month, the commission did so, saying that the county was trying to regulate the airwaves through its zoning code. The county, which has appealed the FCC's decision, has worked with the companies to reduce the interference. The effort appears to be working: The number of known dead spots has dropped from more than 60 to about 20, county officials said. Still, they said, 20 is too many.

Meantime, Fisher said many colleagues on the Anne Arundel County police force have found their own solution: They carry cell phones in case their radios go dead.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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