The proliferation of cell phones is having potentially dangerous consequences for firefighters and police officers, who in some places can't use their radios to call for help because of interference from cell signals.
The Boston suburb of Cambridge, Mass., is one of those areas. Last fall, an officer responding to a fight at an apartment had to walk to the other side of the high-rise to call for backup. Another time, an officer responding to a burglar alarm couldn't call for help as he approached the building.
In both incidents, the delays didn't cause any major problems for officers. But the potential is there, said Cambridge Fire Chief Gerald Reardon, who oversees the city's entire public safety radio system.
"If equipment needs to be repaired or upgraded, we have no problem doing that," he said. "This is beyond our control. It's a worry."
Ernest Mitchell, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, was more pessimistic.
"Thankfully, no one has died," said Mitchell, who is fire chief in Pasadena, Calif. "But it's only a matter of time."
Radios, cell phones on same spectrum
Radios used by police, firefighters and other first responders broadcast on the same 800 megahertz broadcast spectrum as cell phones. So, for example, if a radio dispatch is made at 850 MHz near a cell tower broadcasting at 851 MHz, the radio signal can get drowned out.
It's unclear how many municipalities are affected, but the problem is serious enough that police and firefighters have been urging the government to come up with a fix. Federal regulators are expected to do that in the next few weeks.
Still, a battle is raging within the cell phone industry over what the government should do. The issue isn't just about what works best. Money — billions of dollars — also is a consideration.
On one side of the cell phone debate is Nextel Communications, whose frequencies are interspersed among those belonging to public safety. Its phones cause the most interference.
Nextel was assigned the frequencies by the Federal Communications Commission prior to the cell phone boom, when it was thought the 800 MHz spectrum could handle public safety and cell phone needs.
On the other side is the rest of the wireless industry — including the trade group that counts Nextel as a member — as well as some municipalities and electric utilities that broadcast over the 800 MHz band, and the government watchdog groups National Taxpayers Union and Citizens Against Government Waste.
The Nextel-backed plan would divide the 800 MHz band, giving one section to public safety agencies and another to cell companies. That idea is backed by various national law enforcement groups, as well as Mitchell's fire chiefs association.
Opponents want to leave the spectrum alone, but require each company that causes interference to eliminate it at its own cost within 60 days after a public safety agency reports a problem.
FCC supports reallocation
The Nextel plan would be extremely lucrative for the company, while the competing proposal could cost it a significant amount.
The FCC staff has studied the problem and recommended the commissioners vote for the Nextel plan, according to an FCC official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy recently said she likes that idea. "There's just too much potential for public safety issues if we don't reband," she said.
Nextel has offered to pay $850 million to retune public safety radios once the spectrum is reallocated. In return, the company would get additional spectrum worth about $3 billion, according to the brokerage firm Legg Mason Wood Walker.
Nextel spokeswoman Leigh Horner said reallocation is the only solution that would permanently fix the problem, and her company is being fairly compensated for giving up some spectrum.
"It's an issue about public safety," Horner said.
But Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the wireless industry's trade group, said reallocation would take years while the alternative would fix any problems as they pop up.
"This plan aims to eliminate public safety radio interference immediately — within 60 days of it being reported — while the Nextel-backed plan takes over 3 1/2 years to do the same job," Larson said. "Interference is a serious problem and our police officers and firefighters deserve a serious and immediate solution."