New FCC Mandates Affect Schools

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[author: Brian Crowley]

With guest blogger Ashley Heard*

Many school districts and institutions of higher education use two-way radios for campus security, athletics, bus transportation, and facilities management. New FCC mandates require that all such radio systems be “narrowbanded,” or made to operate on channel bandwidths no bigger than 12.5kHz, by January 1, 2013. “Narrowbanding” is a process of updating radio technology so that it is more efficient.

In order to comply with the “narrowbanding” mandate, all radios must be either reprogrammed or replaced. Additionally, the corresponding FCC licenses must be updated to reflect the radios’ new mode of operation. The good news for schools is that most radio technology made after 1997 can be reprogrammed to operate in 12.5kHz. Moreover, there is no FCC fee for updating the corresponding licenses. Equipment made prior to 1997 and any equipment made thereafter that cannot be reprogrammed will have to be replaced.

Any systems that are not “narrowbanded” and properly licensed by January 1, 2013 are subject to license revocation and fines of up to $10,000 a day. Additionally, noncompliant systems may experience interference or be taken off the air entirely.

Radio users who worry they won’t meet the January 1, 2013 deadline may request a waiver. However, the FCC has indicated an unwillingness to grant waivers and the request process is lengthy. Thus far, at least one organization operating in the Illinois education space, First Student, a school bus provider, has received a waiver [pdf]. First Student has until January 1, 2014 to “narrowband.” The lesson for school and district leaders is to ensure they are on track to meeting the January 1, 2013 deadline and, if not, request a waiver immediately.

Overall,Illinoisradio users are making strong progress toward meeting the “narrowbanding” mandate. Under 20% of radio transmitters in the state remain noncompliant.

Looking toward the future, the FCC plans to undergo additional “narrowbanding.” Radio users should expect to “narrowband” from 12.5kHz to 6.25kHz though the FCC has not set a timeline for this second round of “narrowbanding.” School and district leaders would be wise to plan early for impending “narrowbanding” mandates.

* Ashley Heard, a law student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, is Franczek Radelet’s Fall 2012 education practicum student.