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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Dead Air, Garbled Transmissions Trouble Washington Troopers

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
One of the new Washington State Patrol portable radios by Motorola. It’s a digital radio to replace the previous analog system.";

For most of us, our smartphones have become our figurative lifelines. For state troopers their literal lifeline is still the two-way radio.

And when the radio doesn’t work, it's a big problem.

Dead air, garbled transmissions and poor reception are just some of the issues with the Washington State Patrol’s new $40 million state-of-the art radio system.

"I guess that's good enough for radio"

Garbled transmission has been happening a lot with the patrol's new digital system. And it’s making some troopers a bit testy.

An unnamed trooper was working in the Columbia River Gorge last August when she couldn’t understand a report of an erratically driven truck.

“Well eastbound Hood River, car hauler, that’s all I got," she said. "But I guess that’s good enough for radio.”

Good enough is not what the State Patrol had in mind back in 2011. That’s when the Washington legislature voted to approve $40 million to fund a contract with Motorola Solutions. Motorola’s job was to convert the State Patrol’s old analog two-way radio system to a new digital one by January 1, 2013.

The move was part of an FCC requirement to free up space on the radio spectrum. The term is narrowbanding. Going digital was supposed to ensure that when the frequencies got divided, the quality didn’t degrade.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

"A very complex, technically advanced system"

No radio system is perfect, but this new radio system is the subject of a lot of complaints from troopers. And the project is now slated to be completed two-and-a-half years late and the state has had to get two waivers from the FCC for missed deadlines.

“What we learned is this is a very complex, technically advanced system," says Marty Knorr, deputy director of the State Patrol bureau responsible for overseeing the radio project. He inherited this transition when he took the job six months ago.

Knorr says you should think of digital communications as a data stream that has to be decoded and converted from ones and zeroes into a human voice. “And if anything throws off that data stream and it’s not aligned or in order, what comes out at the other end is either garbled you get parts of things, but it’s unintelligible or, and this is totally different from our old system, you’ll get complete dead silence.”

In the police business, dead air is a scary thing. The problems with the system peaked last year when the State Patrol switched from analog to digital in the patrol district that includes Tacoma.

Knorr says it was so bad that officer safety was compromised.

“We rolled it out and it was not effective and we turned it off in two days and we went back to the old system.”

So far, the Washington State Patrol has converted three of its eight districts statewide to the new digital radio system: Vancouver, Yakima and Spokane. Over the last year, troopers working in those areas have submitted nearly 300 reports of problems with their radios – including garbled transmissions and dead spots.

An expensive fix

Knorr says some of those issues were operator error. Others have been fixed by recalibrating radios, installing better car antennas and moving repeaters to different towers. But in some places the engineers have concluded the only solution is an expensive one: new radio towers to improve coverage.

“There was never any intent to put new towers in," says Knorr. "So that’s the starting point. I can’t say [if that was a mistake.] Knowing what we know now we’re going to need new towers.”

Knorr says a new tower can cost from the hundreds of thousands of dollars to over $1 million. That’s not part of the contract with Motorola.

Bad news about the narrowbanding project is just now filtering back to state lawmakers. Seattle Democrat Reuven Carlyle isn’t surprised the new system has run into static.

“There’s no question that when this program was rolled out that it was half-baked,” he says.

In 2011, Carlyle unsuccessfully tried to block funding of the project until an independent technical review could be conducted.

“This was sold to the legislature as the right package, the right design and the right technical solution," says Carlyle. "And if they show up and want a substantial departure from that plan that we funded with deep reservations, it’s going to be more than difficult. It’s going to be a heavy, heavy lift.”

The State Patrol says it’s not yet asking for more money for new towers. A spokesman for Motorola Solutions says the company is working closely with the Patrol to ensure the new radio system works as it’s designed to.

The troopers union declined to comment. Although in a phone conversation with me the head of the union said the digital radio system has yet to work as well as the old analog one did. Still the Patrol stands by its decision to contract with Motorola and says in the long run the new system has features that will make troopers on the road more safe, not less.

Both Oregon and Idaho report they are now compliant with the FCC mandate. Oregon achieved narrowbanding last August with a significantly scaled back project after the so-called OWIN (Owen) project got into trouble. Unlike Washington, Idaho narrowbanded its existing analog system rather than convert to digital at the same time.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."