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Butler County to apply for 10 new radio frequencies

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Smack in the middle of a sprawling 102-page bill approved in 2012 to extend a payroll tax cut and emergency jobless benefits sit a few paragraphs that force public safety agencies to give back radio frequencies in the so-called T-Band, so that the federal government can auction them to commercial interests.

Experts question the expense of such a switch and whether enough space exists in other broadcast spectrums to relocate the public safety agencies that need the airwaves for emergency communications.

Butler County aims to nail down alternative public safety radio frequencies well in advance of the federal mandate to switch by 2023.

The county will apply for 10 new frequencies to replace 12 they must give back to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said Steve Bicehouse, the director of the county's emergency services.

“It's better to have them rather than scramble,” Bicehouse said.

Butler County will spend $3,450 on 20 applications for the 10 frequencies, Bicehouse said.

The county must apply to the FCC for both the sending and the receiving channels of each frequency.

The county also will spend $11,040 to renew licenses that have expired.

The Butler County Board of Commissioners on June 5 approved spending the funds.

Public safety agencies in the county will not have to buy new radios to use the new frequencies, saving them thousands of dollars, Bicehouse said.

Butler County dispatch center will have to buy new radios, but Bicehouse said he intended to replace the radio system anyway.

Eleven major metropolitan areas, including Pittsburgh, run significant portions of their public safety radio systems over the T-Band, between 470 and 512 megahertz.

The FCC will auction the vacated frequencies and use proceeds to reimburse agencies for the cost of relocating them to other frequencies.

The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council estimated it will cost $5.9 billion to relocate the public safety radio systems of those cities and that auctioning off the T-Band frequencies is not expected to cover the costs.

The council estimated it will cost agencies in Western Pennsylvania $203.4 million to relocate their public safety radio systems.

Pittsburgh's emergency services agencies don't use the affected bandwidth and will not be affected by the switch, said Ray Demichiei, the deputy director of emergency management.

Starting the relocation process early is a good idea, said David Buchanan, head of the council's Spectrum Management Committee. It can take years to relocate and rebuild a public safety radio system, he said.

The council predicts the bandwidth relocation will cause a “major disruption to vital public safety services.”

“NPSTC believes implementing the T-Band legislation is not feasible, provides no public interest benefit and the matter should be re-visited by Congress,” the report concluded.

Allegheny County also operates a large portion of its public safety radio system over the T-Band frequencies.

The county has looked for alternative frequencies but was told by the FCC none were available, said county Emergency Services Chief Alvin Henderson.

The county has asked the FCC to reconsider the law.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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