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Radio conversion will improve communication

Mobile emergency radios, such as the one Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer is using, must be in compliance with a federal narrowband mandate by 2013. It could cost millions of dollars. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

A mind-bogglingly complex and expensive statewide radio conversion, formulated from the ashes of the World Trade Center bombings, was unveiled to Hubbard County Wednesday.

By 2013, the county's emergency radios will be obsolete and must be replaced under a Federal Communications Commission mandate.

The FCC wants all states to convert to a narrowband infrastructure, one of the recommendations of the 911 Commission formed after the terrorist attacks.

Communications, or lack of them, was one of the issued seized on by the 911 Commission. Millions of cell phone calls after the attacks clogged emergency communications, highlighting the necessity of seeking different frequencies.

Converting to narrowband, by essentially squeezing existing bandwidths, will accommodate more digital frequencies as cell phones and emergency radios compete for microwave air space for voice communication and data storage.

Reducing the available channels by half allows the spectrum to hold twice as many signals, radio experts told the county board at its regular meeting.

The conversion will theoretically allow all emergency radios to communicate with each other throughout Minnesota.

But compliance won't come cheap and the mandate is only partially funded. The plan envisions the construction of 320 radio towers across the state, linked by a microwave infrastructure. The state now has 85.

Radios and accompanying equipment will cost Hubbard County millions of dollars, the county commission heard at its regular meeting.

"This is a significant project to get this all in one place," said Ron Whitehead of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

DPS, the Statewide Radio Board, formed in 2004, and 46 counties have already made a choice to go with a system called ARMER, an acronym for Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response. It is the cornerstone of the state's long-term "interoperable communication planning."

The county faces three choices in the conversion, ranging from ballpark estimates of $1.45 million to $4.7 million for the initial outlay and cumulative operating costs over the next 10 years.

In the cheapest and least effective option the county could keep its analog technology, reprogramming what it can and purchasing the rest. The most expensive option is a conventional digital radio system. The middle cost option is going to the ARMER digital "trunked" system, allowing all users on a shared platform.

The ARMER system is also "scalable" for future use, meaning that other user groups such as hospitals and schools could be added.

"To do nothing is not an option," said ARMER regional coordinator Bill Bernhjelm. "It is a complex issue with a lot of choices."

Commissioner Don Carlson wondered aloud if the overall conversion benefited the metro areas at the expense of "us little guys in remote areas of the state."

Yes and no, he was told. Higher radio frequencies have a "better bounce" especially off buildings, but the ARMER system is the only option with a plan on allocating the new frequencies in both urban and rural areas.

Communications for squad cars with mobile radios and portable units officers carry on their shoulders will be greatly enhanced through the narrowband frequencies, the board was told.

Whitehead said a 911 fund was created and sits in a "special revenue account the Legislature can't move" to other areas. "It is a committed trust account" to help agencies defray the cost of the conversion, he said. It would cover tower costs and some other expenses.

Sheriff Frank Homer, who sits on a regional radio board for the northwest portion of the state, was given permission to explore the county's best option.

"We need to do what's best for the county to come into compliance and within our budget," Homer said. The Park Rapids Fire Department has already pursued its own path, obtaining a grant to purchase the conventional digital radios. But the grant can be amended for the department to purchase any system the county settles on, Bernhjelm pointed out.

Board chair Lyle Robinson asked the radio experts if they could "return in two weeks with two bushels baskets of money" to help the county pay for the conversion.

And regardless of which option the county chooses, commissioners were told "the life cycle of radio equipment is 10-12 years."

Whatever it purchases could be obsolete again in a decade.