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Narrowing the radio spectrum for geoscience

This story first appeared on June 6 as a Web Extra, New rules endanger GPR.

On April 18, an Amtrak auto train was passing through Crescent City, Fla., on its way to Washington when it derailed, killing four people and injuring more than 160 others. Many investigators believe that waterlogged soil caused the tracks to move around and derail the train. A group of geoscientists, led by Ernest Selig and Gary Olhoeft, think they may have found a way to prevent future accidents — using ground penetrating radar (GPR) to measure the amount of water beneath the rails. But a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to restrict the use of GPR may stop them dead in their tracks when it goes into effect this month.

The use of GPR to create an automated, water-measuring system for the Federal Railroad Administration is only one of this technology’s many applications. In his 30 years of GPR experience, including 20 years at the U.S. Geological Survey, Olhoeft, now a geophysics professor at the Colorado School of Mines, has used GPR for everything from studying agricultural pollution to finding lost utilities to preventing damage from excavation to mapping archaeological sites prior to digging.

At a congressional hearing on June 5, industry representatives and members of Congress highlighted GPR’s contributions in an effort to curb the coming FCC regulations on ultra-wideband (UWB) technology, including GPR — regulations based on concerns about potential interference with military and transportation systems.

“This technology has too many promising applications to stifle it based on unfounded, and unproven, concerns,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). GPR uses a large range of frequency in the radio spectrum to look downward into the earth, water, ice or man-made materials to see the unseen. The FCC regulates the nongovernmental use of the radio spectrum, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) handles the frequency spectrum for federal agencies.

Until 1998, the wide use of GPR went largely unnoticed and unregulated. After three companies applied to use new UWB devices, the FCC and NTIA decided it was time to draft rules for their use. Now, after four years of discussion, the FCC has issued frequency and application restrictions, and calls for GPR manufacturers and users to obtain certification for their systems and to submit advanced notification of use. According to the FCC rules, GPR systems can operate at frequencies below 960 megahertz and between 3.1 and 10.6 gigahertz, but its use in those ranges is “restricted to law enforcement, fire and rescue organizations, to scientific research institutions, to commercial mining companies, and to construction companies,” banning use by independent geoscientists. All use is banned between 960 megahertz and 3.1 gigahertz.

“I think they’re being too conservative, because they’re going to end up putting a lot of people out of business and unfortunately they’re going to eliminate a bunch of applications like evaluating pavements, bridge decks, concrete runways. Those all are using radars right in that frequency range,” Olhoeft says.

These rules result from intense pressure from the Departments of Defense and Transportation to protect infrastructures that rely on the radio spectrum to help provide national security and public safety. These government agencies fear that unrestricted use of certain bands of the radio spectrum will interfere with their use of the spectrum. “Even thinly spread UWB energy interferes with very low power signals from distant sources, such as GPS [Global Positioning System] satellites, which are over 12,000 miles away. In such a case, prudence is dictated because no one knows for sure,” testified Steven Price of the Department of Defense.

GPS runs right around 1 gigahertz and, Olhoeft says, the Department of Defense is trying to protect both the current GPS system and the future system the agency has proposed building. “One of the biggest errors in geophysics is not knowing where you are at, so we use the GPS too. And we’ve shown them that it doesn’t interfere.” Indeed, at the congressional hearing, when questioned by Rep. Tauzin, Julius Knapp of the FCC stated that in GPR’s 30 years of use, there have been no reported cases of interference from GPR.

Dennis Johnson of Geophysical Survey Systems Inc. (GSSI) testified on behalf of GPR manufacturers and users. Having sold about 2,500 systems since the company started in 1970, GSSI is the largest U.S. manufacturer of GPR. Johnson said the GPR industry is worth $200 million in the United States alone. “If the rules are not changed, the outcome and consequences for the GPR industry are extremely serious. Many companies will go out of business, and the public’s access to a very useful technology will be severely limited, if not eliminated,” Johnson said.

A source at the FCC says that the agency plans to interpret the rules as broadly as possible, granting a waiver to those who request one. In fact, he says that the FCC has already met with several groups to get a jump-start on granting them permission and certification for GPR usage. He does concede, however, that the process is subject to the NTIA’s corroboration. No one really knows what will happen when the rules change this month.

In its rules, the FCC admits to its conservatism and says it will review the rulings in six to 12 months, after extensive testing of GPR and other devices affected by the ruling. Members of Congress at the hearing pressed both the FCC and the NTIA to construct a strict timetable to promote a speedy resolution.

Lisa M. Pinsker

Links:

FCC press release with links to the ruling
NTIA
Radar Solutions International
GSSI
Site about GPR and regulations


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