Counties must upgrade radio systems

Required changes to emergency communications systems mean some Kansas counties will have to make expensive upgrades while other counties will pay very little.

Sedgwick County, for example, estimates it may cost about $25 million to upgrade its system, while Harvey County may spend about $5,000.

A Federal Communications Commission ruling in 1999 mandated that all public radio communication systems — used mostly by police, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel — switch to narrowband technology beginning in 2013.

Airwaves are used to carry many types of signals, including television broadcasts, cell phone signals, wireless Internet signals and radio waves. Currently, counties' radio communication systems operate on wideband frequencies. Switching to narrowband technology allows more users on the band at one time, meaning the airwaves are used more efficiently, FCC spokesman Robert Kenny said.

Operating on a narrowband frequency requires different technology than a wideband frequency does. While most radio technology manufactured in the last 10 years can operate on both frequencies, some counties in Kansas still have older receivers or radio towers that will need to be replaced before the 2013 transition.

The majority of Butler County's public radio system infrastructure is 25 years old, which is too outdated to accommodate the switch to narrowband.

Upgrading the system will cost the county about $12.9 million. In November, voters passed a 1/4-cent sales tax increase to help fund improvements to the system.

Chris Davis, the county's director of emergency communications, said the county already had been planning to upgrade its aging communications system, but the FCC deadline sped up the process.

The county is still in the engineering phase. In addition to new radio units for emergency personnel, two new radio towers will have to be constructed, Davis said. The upgrades should be completed by October 2012 and will increase radio coverage to 95 percent of the county.

Davis did not know the exact percentage of the county that is covered by the current radio system but said it was "significantly less" than what it will be in 2012.

In Sedgwick County, where the public communications system supports about 6,000 users compared with Butler County's estimated 800, upgrades will cost about $25 million. Director of emergency communications Diane Gage said that is a rough estimate because officials are still figuring out what needs to be replaced and upgraded.

No plan has been put in place for financing the upgrades — Gage said her department needs to get a more exact cost before meeting with the county's finance department — but the upgrades could be paid for in part by 911 telephone fees.

Gage said the county's aging system was getting to the point where it needed to be replaced anyway, and upgrading infrastructure to accommodate the switch to narrowband will also improve radio coverage.

The cost to ensure Cowley County's public radio communications system is ready for the switch to narrowband will be significantly less than in Sedgwick or Butler counties.

Because most of Cowley County's radio units are already compatible with narrowband, the only major upgrades will be to existing towers. Director of emergency management Brian Stone estimated the cost to will be no more than $35,000.

Stone said the county has been using federal grant money received over the past few years to purchase new narrowband-compatible radio units and started an inventory earlier this year to identify any remaining areas or units that need to be upgraded or replaced.

Harvey County is in a similar situation. Most of its radio units were bought in the last 10 years, meaning they support both wideband and narrowband frequencies. Director of communications Courtney Becker estimated the county would have to spend about $5,000 more to ensure compatibility.