NHP goal to improve communications

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal John Macdonald and Dan Berger display photos at the Nevada Department Of Transportation office of their radio system equipment at Snow Valley Peak.

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal John Macdonald and Dan Berger display photos at the Nevada Department Of Transportation office of their radio system equipment at Snow Valley Peak.

Most have seen the cellular commercial with the guy holding his cell phone repeating the question: "Can you hear me now?"

At the Nevada Department of Transportation, that's John Macdonald.

Macdonald is a radio communications specialist working as a consultant for NDOT on the new 800-megawatt radio system. One of his primary jobs is finding all the places in Nevada where that system doesn't work.

While 800 mw has its advantages - such as the ability to carry huge amounts of data along with voice communications - it gets stopped by mountains and other obstacles. Even a large building can make a blank spot where a Highway Patrol trooper or investigator would be unable to radio for help.

Outside the Reno and Las Vegas areas, he said, the biggest problem is the number of mountain ranges in Nevada. More than a dozen ranges create hundreds of spots where the radios simply don't work.

"We're terrain-limited," he said.

Macdonald's job over the coming year is to drive practically every stretch of highway in the state to find and map those spots. Then he and engineers can visit them and determine what to do.

Unlike the guy in the commercial, though, he doesn't have to actually walk along with radio against his ear asking "Can you hear me now?"

"I drive down the road, and the computer in the car records how strong the signal is automatically," he said. It also tags every one of those spots with global-positioning system coordinates.

Macdonald's least favorite color is dark blue - the color the computer puts on the map where there is no usable radio signal. He prefers yellow, which indicates a strong signal.

The problem gets especially complicated in Las Vegas, where troopers have complained they lose radio contact as they drive between different resorts along the Strip.

Another problem is interference from other radio users on nearby frequencies. Near the Rio in Las Vegas, Macdonald said a Nextel site was wiping out the state's signal. The FCC is moving both to new frequencies to cure the problem.

For the safety of troopers and others already relying on the 800 system in Reno, the Carson City area and Las Vegas, NDOT's goal is to eliminate those dark spots.

Robert Chisel, NDOT's assistant director for administration, and Rich Sheldrew, who heads NDOT's communications division, said the radio system is 90 percent complete. Engineers will ship a computerized transmitter to Elko by the end of the month to get that part of Nevada on the system.

The biggest hold-up, Chisel said, is installing the mountain-top repeaters and relays. The Department of Information Technology is handling construction of 11 peaks to provide radio coverage in rural areas.

Sheldrew said, once completed, the system will provide much better radio service to NDOT as well as NHP and other law enforcement agencies in the Department of Public Safety than the old radios.

He demonstrated that from the NDOT communications shop in Carson City by calling an NDOT official in Las Vegas on a hand-held radio.

He said there are already nearly 10,000 radios using the system.

The state was forced to put $14.7 million into developing the system after the Federal Communications Commission threatened to fine Nevada for using frequencies in the old VHF band which it wasn't licensed to use.

Chisel said the goal is to complete the 800 system in a year.

-- Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.


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