Spectrum sale threatens key comm network

The mandated sale of federal radio frequencies has clouded the future of a key communications system in Hawaii used by federal, state and local agencies as well as the boating public.

The Rainbow Communications System, a two-decade-old, 120-channel microwave system managed by the Customs Service, is the only federal, state and local network in the country. Customs uses the network to communicate with its agents at airports in Hawaii, Kauai and Maui. The Drug Enforcement Administration also relies on Rainbow to communicate with agents who are hunting down drug traffickers. Hawaii's Division of Forestry also relies on Rainbow, and its Civil Defense system uses the network to issue tsunami warnings.

Lt. Cmdr. George Proven, communications officer for the 14th Coast Guard District, Honolulu, said the network supports safety-of-life communications, including vessel distress calls over VHF-FM Channel 16. If a skipper of a fishing boat off the coast of Maui, for example, is in trouble, he can key the microphone on his low-power VHF radio to summon help. The Coast Guard can use Rainbow to continue to communicate with the skipper during the emergency.

But a congressional plan to sell federal frequencies to commercial users threatens Rainbow's existence. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 mandated the Federal Communications Commission to auction off a substantial portion of the federal radio spectrum to the commercial sector, such as cellular telephone companies.

The law also required the FCC to auction off an additional 20 MHz of spectrum below the 3 GHz frequency. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has targeted the 2 GHz frequencies used by Rainbow for "mixed use" by federal and commercial entities. The sale will force agencies that operate Rainbow to find new frequencies, which is a difficult and costly proposition.

The NTIA estimated the relocation costs for Rainbow at $25 million. But the Treasury Department told the NTIA that "alternatives such as higher frequency bands, satellite links or undersea cables are not technically or economically viable."

Moving Rainbow to higher frequencies would disrupt communications. The longest communications link in the Rainbow network is from Oahu to Maui. The microwave link spans more than 128 miles, making it "the longest over-water 2 GHz microwave link in the world," said Charles Bussell, director of the operations division at Customs' National Law Enforcement Communications Center in Orlando, Fla., and manager of Rainbow.

A higher frequency would make it difficult to link Oahu and Maui, requiring instead multiple hops through other islands, which would increase equipment costs, said James Cote, chief of the integrated network systems section of the Coast Guard's Pacific maintenance and logistics command in Alameda, Calif.

Bussell still hopes that Rainbow will gain "grandfather" protection. If not, both state and federal agencies in Hawaii face disruption of service on what Bussell called "an extremely valuable interconnection capability.... Any move will have a major impact on the system."

The Coast Guard's Cote agreed: "We've been fighting to hang onto Rainbow because it is a network loaded with safety-of-life communications.... But we have a feeling this is a losing battle."

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