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LCRA may soon replace radio system, affecting 180-plus customers

LCRA Security Officer Chris Savage

Lower Colorado River Authority Security Officer Chris Savage uses a 900-megahertz “narrowband” radio to communicate with fellow employees. LCRA might soon upgrade to a broadband radio system per a new Federal Communications Commission regulation. Courtesy photo

More than 180 Texas cities, counties, electric utilities, and other public safety entities, including four in Burnet and Llano counties, will be changing from “narrowband” radio technology to broadband.

All of these entities are customers of the Lower Colorado River Authority’s radio system, which includes both the 700-megahertz and 900-MHz frequency spectrums. All are affected by a 2020 Federal Communications Commission regulation update requiring designated portions of the 900-MHz narrowband spectrum to realign for 3G LTE (third-generation long-term evolution). 

LCRA has been grandfathered, but according to Chief Operating Officer Ken Price, that won’t last forever. Price presented the issue during the LCRA’s Planning and Public Policy Committee meeting, which followed the regular Board of Directors and Transmission Services Corp. meetings on Feb. 22.

“We have been exempted along with nine other electric utilities across the country,” Price said. “Five of those utilities are already transitioning to (broadband) use. There is no ‘do nothing’ option. It’s a matter of when.” 

LCRA has 7,792 900-MHz radios in use among its 260 customers, which includes the river authority, the second-largest radio network in the state. LCRA uses 14 percent of the total number of radios. Four of its customers are in Burnet and Llano counties, including the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, Central Texas Electric Cooperative, Western Austin Train Co., which is part of Cap Metro, and Capital Area Rural Transportation System.

The authority also has 7,596 700-MHz radios divided between itself and 167 other customers, but this band, which is only for first responders, is not affected by the FCC change. The 900-MHz frequency is used for day-to-day communications and is available to the public.

Broadband for radio is not the same as broadband for internet. LCRA is in both businesses.

“We are talking about radio broadband today,” Price said. “We’ll discuss the status of our fiber broadband business in a later meeting.” 

In 2021, the Texas Legislature passed a bill authorizing LCRA to provide middle-mile and backhaul fiber access to third parties to enable the extension of fast-speed internet into its service area. 

Third-generation LGE broadband for radio also provides higher data transfer speeds, although it is still slower than needed to stream full-motion video.

The Feb. 22 committee meeting discussion moved into executive session for possible costs and suppliers. No vote was taken.