Metro Boston Area Public Safety T-Band Dilemma

Chief Gerald R. Reardon
City of Cambridge Massachusetts

I bet many of you don’t realize that the T-Band has over a 40-year history of use in the Metro Boston public safety market. It has allowed for interoperability that prior to the T-Band waiver was not an attainable goal. Let me explain.

In order to fully understand the context of T-Band spectrum use in the Boston Metro Area, one has to go back to a time in the 1970’s when communication equipment was not digitally tuned and the channel spread that could be used in a radio was barely 1 MHz. These technical limitations, in general, led fire service agencies and police to use T-Band channels. However, several major incidents of unrest as a result of student demonstrations, rioting, and even bombings in Harvard Square in the late 1960s and early 1970s were the real impetus for the Boston Market to use the T-Band spectrum. These events required numerous police agencies to assist in controlling the unrest, and it quickly became clear to all in communications that a new strategy was necessary[1].

These events helped launch the Boston Area Police Emergency Radio Network (BAPERN) in the 1970’s. Following the creation of BAPERN, the T-Band (Television channels 14 and 16) was utilized under waivers approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). BAPERN primarily used T-Band channel 14, which is 470-476 MHz, and numerous law enforcement communities in the Metro Boston area moved to that spectrum in order to be compatible with the network. Fire service agencies used T-Band channel 16, which is the 482-488 MHz spectrum. Furthermore, MetroFire, an association of 34 cities and towns who are part of the fire mutual aid compact around Greater Boston, adopted these channels for mutual aid, and similar to law enforcement, fire departments started migrating to the 483 MHz T-Band spectrum.

All of the local public safety operational channels that migrated took years to accomplish due to funding issues. Many departments had not converted due to financial issues, but, more importantly, lack of spectrum as the T-Band channels quickly filled.

After the devastating events of September 11, 2001 (9-11),  the public safety community, again, realized we still had limitations in the goal of interoperability. A new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was enacted, and the Metro Boston Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) was established shortly thereafter. Within this realm, the Communications Interoperability Subcommittee (CIS) was created. But yet again, we were out of the Public Safety spectrum needed to enhance our region’s interoperability needs.

In 2007, the FCC granted a 337(c) waiver to use approximately 70 Part 22 UHF channels. As the premise of the waiver was to establish a more pervasive fire/police/EMS-interoperable network in the Boston Metro area, there were a number of site modifications proposed to deploy the network and reach a greater number of agencies. These changes were coordinated through the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and submitted to the FCC. This resulted in 72 additional T-Band channels for the Metro Boston area that consisted of 32 matched repeater pairs and 6 simplex channels. The channels were used to expand BAPERN (Law), MetroFire (Fire), EMS, and numerous local departments within the Metro Boston UASI who were still operating on VHF channels and needed to be upgraded to UHF.

The Metro Boston region has expended tens of millions of dollars on equipment and infrastructure, and has developed a common interoperable channel plan that is consistent with our public safety partners. The greater Metro Boston area has over 200 licensees on the T-Band spectrum, many of which are system licenses with multiple channels. To re-locate all of the public safety users operating on T-Band at this time would reverse progress and diligent work achieved over more than forty years.

There simply is not enough spectrum available to re-locate all of the public safety entities.

At the same time, the region has embarked on a Metro Boston 700MHz multisite simulcast Project-25 digital trunk overlay system. This system will allow additional command and control, as well as the ability to incorporate all the 800 MHz trunk users. Presently, it is a seven-site system, but plans call for an eventual 10-to-12 site system.

A common communications IP-core trunk controller was also established in Massachusetts. The project utilized Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant funding for the UASI zone. Two sites, geographically separated in the state, now control virtually all of the trunked radio users in the Commonwealth; we also continue to add console sites and regional centers that further strengthen our statewide radio interoperability.

We fully appreciate the Federal government’s support in enacting FirstNet, a nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network that is essential to providing both the present and future needs for our nation’s first responders to effectively deal with major events. However, responses to the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, a tragic event, highlighted not only the strength of our city but the strength our public safety land mobile radio networks as well.

Time and funding cannot overcome a lack of common available spectrum to replace forty years of building true interoperability in our region. The Metro Boston region has successfully dealt with numerous major communications events over the years, and we have a common regional channel plan that consists of over 6,000 radios carried by Police, Fire, and EMS. Each year, we strive for improvement, and each year, members from the region, mutual aid districts, and the Commonwealth work hard to make this seemingly impossible endeavor come to fruition.

To undo over forty years of diligent, battle-tested, and proven successes marked by our interoperability system—a system built on the T-Band spectrum—would not be in the interest of public safety or citizens of the constituency that we protect. To do so, would be to dismantle a success story that most strive to achieve.

For more information regarding the T-Band see The T-Band Giveback document created by SAFECOM and the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators (NCSWIC).

[1] Law enforcement agencies ran the gamut of the allowable spectrum at the time. Low band 30-50 MHz, VHF 147-160 MHZ, and UHF 460-470 MHz were all used by various agencies. Both Boston Police and Cambridge Police used 460 MHz channels, but in spite of the compatibility, and band allocation, the radios were still crystal-controlled single- and dual-channel units. Even seeing a four-channel radio was a rare commodity. A VHF Intercity Channel 158.970 was really the only common factor, and that was not present in some of the surrounding communities.