FCC action follows negotiated arrangements between the state and the railroads.

Many state and local governments, especially in largely rural areas, have long eyed certain under-utilized frequencies in the VHF band (150-170 MHz) otherwise reserved for railroads as a possible source of spectrum for public safety communications. The State of Maine recently gained access to some of  those railroad frequencies for a new state-wide public safety radio network. 

The VHF band has propagation characteristics that make it ideal for land mobile radio use in sparsely populated, mountainous, and heavily forested areas. Other available land mobile frequency bands, such as UHF and 700 MHz, require far more transmitter sites to provide comparable coverage. But the number of VHF frequencies assigned for public safety use is limited, especially in areas near the Canadian and Mexican borders.

Maine has the longest land border with Canada of any of the Lower 48 states, a fact that  limits its access to VHF. Nevertheless, nearly all state and local government public safety agencies in Maine rely heavily on a patchwork of aging VHF systems for their radio communications. A few years ago, the state contracted with Harris Corporation for a new state-wide VHF network that would greatly improve radio capabilities, coverage, and interoperability. But officials were unable to find enough vacant VHF frequencies in the FCC’s Public Safety Pool. That led to the ultimately successful effort to obtain a rule waiver from the FCC to allow the use of frequencies in the Industrial/Business Pool normally set aside for railroads.

The FCC-designated coordinator for those frequencies, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), objected to Maine’s request from the outset. But after extensive discussions, the state and AAR ultimately entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that allows the state to use certain railroad frequencies, while ensuring that this use will not limit future railroad communications requirements in Maine. The FCC, citing the MOU, granted Maine’s request for waiver on February 5.

(Disclosure: FH&H provided legal counsel to Harris Corporation and the State of Maine).