New FCC radio band rules affect truckers, taxis, contractors

Elwood Brehmer

Changes in Federal Communications Commission regulations regarding two-way radio use have left Alaska truckers struggling to comply.

FCC "narrowbanding" rules went into affect Jan. 1 requiring all UHF/VHF radio users to operate with 12.5 kHz, or narrowband radios, as opposed to traditional 25 kHz, wideband frequency radios.

Alaska Trucking Association Executive Director Aves Thompson said narrowbanding is a "one size fits all" solution to crowded radio bands in the Lower 48. Using 12.5 kHz radios provides twice as many usable frequencies.

An FCC briefing for public safety organizations states that narrowbanding "will relieve congestion in and result in increased channel availability for public safety VHF/UHF systems."

Linda Peters is general manager of ProComm, a two-way radio retailer and service provider in Anchorage. Peters said she has been working with her customers to make sure they comply with the new rules.

"It's a tremendous business interruption," Peters said.

Radio users must reprogram their radios to operate on narrowband frequencies while continuing to conduct business, she said.

Two-way radios often last 20 years or longer, Peters said, meaning some users may need to buy new radios if their current device can't handle narrowbands. In 1997, the FCC began mandated all two-way radios sold in the U.S. to work on narrowbands.

Longstanding FCC regulations require companies using two-way radios to operate only on assigned frequencies.

In Alaska, Thompson said those regulations have largely been ignored by trucking companies for decades because there are few radio users. Truck drivers have crossed bands to notify one-another about road conditions, potential hazards or to another truck carrying a wide load. Until now the FCC had looked the other way, he said.

"It's my understanding (the FCC) took this opportunity to clean up the bands in Alaska," Thompson said.

Fines for not complying with narrowbanding are up to $112,000 per incident, Peters said. The FCC used to be a sort of referee when the issue of radio interference came up between two parties, according to Peters. It has become an enforcement agency, she said.

"I wish I had 10 bucks for every time I had someone tell me they've been using two-way radios for 20 years without a license and they've never seen the FCC. That party's over," Peters said.

Peters noted that narrowbanding applies to more than just trucking companies. She said the taxi, timber and mining industries are just a couple examples of other groups who need to re-apply for FCC licenses.

"A mining company has to constantly add its contractors to its license or add frequencies if it wants to communicate over radio and be compliant," Peters said.

Bill Brownlow, transportation frequency coordinator for the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials in Washington, D.C., said in mid-January he was told by FCC officials that upwards of 20,000 commercial two-way radio licensees had not altered their licenses to become narrowband compliant.

In late December, the Alaska Trucking Association, or ATA, applied for exemptions with the FCC, Thompson said. The exemptions would allow for two open frequency bands -- an "alert" band and a "chat" band -- to be used by any two-way radio users, including public safety organizations. He said a ruling on the exemptions is expected sometime in February or early March.

Thompson said Brownlow helped the ATA through the application process.

"We expect (the application) to go through with no problems whatsoever," Brownlow said.

Alert bands are available nationwide, Brownlow said, but the ATA is the first statewide organization to apply for one that he is aware of, he said.

Thompson said a radio band open to many users is critical to Alaska, especially if the state has to truck liquefied natural gas from the North Slope to supply its energy needs. Such a venture would require "hundreds of trucks moving enormous amounts of gas" he said, and something as simple as a radio band could increase safety immensely, Thompson said.

ATA applied for channel 151.49 MHz to be the alert band, Brownlow said, because the channel is already set aside for the same use in British Columbia by Industry Canada, the Canadian equivalent to the FCC. There it is referred to as the Road Resource channel and used primarily to monitor road conditions, he said. According to Industry Canada there is only one licensee on the channel in the Yukon Territory, Brownlow said. Which channel a chat band would be on is unknown.

If its application is granted, as expected, ATA's license to operate on channel 151.49 MHz would apply to all ATA members, Thompson said.

Peters likened the alert band to widely licensed marine distress bands used on ocean-going vessels.

"Our interest in this is to provide communication for our member drivers as needed and to eventually extend the network out to other drivers," Thompson said.

Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage