Cell phones

Jan. 13, 2002

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
The Philadelphia Inquirer

At 10:16 the night of March 20, 2000, Upper Merion Police Officer Jeffrey Mauer raced to rescue a motorist trapped in a burning, overturned car on the Schuylkill Expressway.

Mauer, the first officer at the scene near the King of Prussia mall, tried to radio for backup – an ambulance, a tow truck, help directing traffic.

The call didn’t go through.

He radioed a nearby state police car, which was also responding to the accident. Though the two were perhaps a football field apart, that call didn’t make it either.

Interference that police blamed on a cell-phone tower atop the nearby McIntosh Hotel had momentarily knocked out Mauer’s handheld and car radios, as well as the wireless connections of the computers in his patrol car.

It happens frequently, not only here but nationwide: Officials in 30 states have complained of similar disruptions in emergency communications since 1998, including some that left officers in jeopardy.

The problem, which has grown worse as cell-phone use has skyrocketed and gone digital, is serious enough that one major cell-phone company has offered $500 million to help move safety-forces’ communications to other radio frequencies – and even that amount may prove to be inadequate.

No one has been reported killed or injured because of the disruptions, which occur even though the safety forces and cell-phone companies are abiding by Federal Communications Commission regulations.

The motorist trapped in the Schuylkill accident was rescued in time. But the worry is real.

“Not only is it expensive to fix . . . the nature of the problem puts lives in danger,” Upper Merion Police Capt. Robert D. Deuber said. “That’s unacceptable.”

The problem occurs in a specific stretch of the radio-frequency spectrum – frequencies in the 800-megahertz range – that the FCC has split up among public safety agencies, cell-phone companies and others. For instance, 824 MHz is at the edge of one block of public-safety frequencies; 825 MHz is a cell-phone frequency.

Just as a powerful AM radio station’s signal may sometimes overwhelm a weaker station on an adjacent channel, the signals from a cell-phone tower may disrupt communications on nearby frequencies.

The largest commercial user of frequencies in the 800-MHz range is Nextel Communications Inc., of Reston, Va., the nation’s fifth-largest wireless phone provider. So, its towers tend to cause the most disruptions nationwide.

Industry giants Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, Sprint and Cingular Wireless also have space on the 800-MHz band, the FCC said.

“If you mix red paint and yellow paint, you get orange, which is neither,” said Lawrence Krevor, Nextel’s vice president for government affairs. “In this case, our red signal will sometimes block out public safety’s yellow signal. That’s what we’re trying to fix.”

Nextel has worked with agencies from Pennsylvania to Hawaii to try to solve the problems, often sending technicians to ride along in patrol cars to try to fix specific trouble spots. In Montgomery County, for example, Nextel technicians have made at least eight trips to specific sites in the last year and a half, adjusting antenna angles and other settings; interference problems remained, said Richard Lohwasser, technical services manager for Montgomery County Emergency Services.

The interference typically is intermittent and brief, lasting only a couple of minutes – although, rarely, it goes on for hours – and it usually occurs within three-quarters of a mile of a cell tower. Yet reports of troubling incidents abound, both locally and nationally:

In August 2000, a suicidal suspect armed with a knife threatened an officer behind police headquarters in Tigard, Ore. The officer tried to radio inside the station for help, but a nearby Nextel antenna interfered with the call. The standoff ended peacefully.

In November 2000, a dozen officers in Scottsdale, Ariz., were unable to use their radios – within 100 feet of one another – as they hunted for a suspect who had brandished a gun during a bar fight.

In Horsham, Montgomery County, Police Chief Robert H. Ruxton said his officers had likely missed arrests because their patrol cars’ computers, which connect wirelessly using an 800-MHz frequency, were unable to show whether warrants existed for drivers pulled over on Route 611.

In East Norriton, Montgomery County, Police Chief John McGowan said a Nextel signal coming from a tower outside a Norriton Fire Engine Company station on Swede Road cuts transmissions to and from officers within a half-mile. He said he was pressing the fire company to break its lease with Nextel, which uses space on the fire company’s tower.

“I’m all for technology,” he said. “Just not at the expense of public safety.”

Still, East Norriton itself is a Nextel subscriber.

“If I could throw it away tomorrow, I would,” McGowan said. “But nobody else offers the package they do.”

In addition, Philadelphia police are bracing for interference headaches as they phase in an 800-MHz communications system, scheduled to be fully online in the fall, said police Deputy Commissioner Charles Brennan.

Authorities in some Chester County communities, including West Chester, Kennett Square and Uwchlan, have complained of 800-MHz problems. And Nextel has proposed adding its equipment to towers in Lansdale and Norristown in Montgomery County. A borough hearing on the Norristown proposal is scheduled for Jan. 22.

A spot check of public-safety agencies in South Jersey, including Burlington and Salem Counties and the city of Camden, turned up no similar reports.

Nextel filed a 59-page recommendation, called a “white paper,” with the FCC in November, asking the commission to redistribute the entire 800-MHz band. FCC spokeswoman Meribeth McCarrick said the commission was studying the document.

As part of the proposal, Nextel offered $500 million – tied to the FCC’s acceptance of the proposal – to public-safety agencies nationwide to cover costs of switching frequencies, from engineering to equipment.

Under the plan, Nextel would trade its frequencies on several bands for an 800-MHz block fully separated from public-safety agencies.

“Our technology is not the issue,” Nextel’s Krevor said. “It’s the simple fact of the placement of Nextel’s frequencies.”

A competitor derided the plan, calling it self-serving.

“While the industry leaders were spending billions acquiring spectrum and band space, Nextel built its network by merging with small, two-way radio companies that already owned licenses,” said Jeffrey Nelson, executive director for corporate communications at Verizon Wireless. “It saved them millions, but it put them in the position they’re in.”

Nelson called Nextel’s $500 million offer “a pittance. This proposal is designed to benefit mostly Nextel. It doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”

Nextel and Motorola Inc., which makes phones for Nextel as well as radio equipment used in law enforcement, both are part of a group called Project 39, which is studying the issue alongside the federal Public Safety Wireless Network and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International.

In an interim report to the FCC dated Dec. 24, Project 39 identified 45 public-safety agencies reporting 800-MHz interference. Of those, 30 cited Nextel by name.

Yet remaking the 800-MHz band into the bicameral home of wireless companies and public-safety agencies would ignore the band’s history and create an expensive hardship for many other groups and businesses. The band has long been the home of two-way radio communications for private businesses.

The Industrial Telecommunications Association reported that FedEx Corp. has 40,000 mobile radio units and about 750 bases, and would take a $100 million hit by having to relocate to other frequencies.

Joseph F. Weiss, vice president of network applications at Arinc Inc., a radio-service provider at 17 major U.S. airports including Philadelphia International and Newark International, said his company would have to spend $160 million if its frequencies were changed.

Both FedEx and Arinc were mentioned in a Dec. 20 letter to the FCC opposing Nextel’s proposal that was signed by groups including the Industrial Telecommunications Association, Forest Industries Telecommunications and the American Association of Railroads.

Verizon’s Nelson said all wireless companies with licenses on the 800-MHz band would have to relocate to other frequencies under Nextel’s proposal, “and the engineering costs alone are more than I care to speculate. We haven’t even thought that far ahead. Hopefully the FCC commissioners take the larger view and disregard the white paper.”

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