Whew! The narrowbanding deadline for two-way radios is a little more than three months away, and it seems like everyone is having some kind of communications emergency. Many users are still making the transition from 25 kHz to 12.5 kHz technology. Plenty more, especially public safety organizations, are dealing with the loss of signal strength that comes with the change. Let’s look at what’s behind that loss and what you can do about it.
Think of two-way radio transmissions as water moving through a hose. You can get more water through a fire hose than a garden hose partly because it’s wider. Narrowbanding makes radio signals half as wide as they were before. Because they’re weaker, they won’t travel as far.
The rule of thumb is that narrowbanding can result in a three decibel loss in signal strength. Is that a lot? Well, it depends. Was your signal strength adequate before narrowbanding? Were there parts of your coverage area that had issues? Are you dealing with physical barriers such as hills or mountains?
Step 1: System Check
The first thing to do when you’ve confirmed that you’re being impacted by a drop in signal strength is get a system optimization check. It’ll include an evaluation of the condition of your system, its tuning, batteries, antennas, and so on. Did you know that putting an antenna on the bumper of a truck instead of the roof greatly reduces its performance?
This check will allow the user to confirm whether the system is producing all the signal strength allowed under that particular FCC license. The technician can also look for damage to system components and confirm they were properly installed.
Improper installation or maintenance as well as damage can result in result in a loss of signal strength. To boost performance, you can reduce that signal loss, boost the signal with improvements to the system, or both.
Step 2: Reducing Signal Loss
Signal loss can happen in any number of places in the system. Antennas may not properly direct the signal toward the horizon. Cables to repeaters may need replacement. Connectors can be corroded. Finally, the quality of the system may not be adequate.
The old adage “you get what you pay for” certainly applies to two-way radios, and their quality does vary. Receiver specifications, engineering, tuning, the antenna, and even design generally improve as the price increases. This really happened: Two public safety officers were at a scene. One was using a radio that cost more that twice as much as the other. Guess which one could hear and which one couldn’t?
Step 3: Improving Efficiency
With signal loss reduced, it’s time to think about improving efficiency. Antennas can be upgraded to ones that better direct the signal. Amplifiers can be added to antennas. Repeater systems can be added or augmented. Radios can be upgraded.
There are plenty of ways to make these systems better, but two things are certain: narrowbanding does cause a drop in signal strength, and the FCC narrowbanding mandate deadline isn’t negotiable. But given all the important, even life-saving, tasks we can do with two-way radio systems, don’t you agree that they need to be as good as we can make them?
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