The Battleship and the Lighthouse

© 2005 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Spring 2005
Author: Tom Wadsworth
Pages 56-60

The Battleship and the Lighthouse
The Great Frequency-Interference Battle

An Editorial by Tom Wadsworth

Perhaps you’ve heard this one …

Plowing at night through rough, foggy seas, a battleship’s radar suddenly indicates an object directly in its path. The ship’s captain sends a radio signal, “We are on a collision course. Advise you to change course 10 degrees north.”

A response crackles over the radio: “Negative. We advise you to change course 10 degrees south.”

The captain can now see a blinking light from the approaching object. Perturbed, he bellows a reply: “I’m a ship’s captain. Change course 10 degrees north, now!”

“I’m a seaman second class,” comes the reply. “Advise that you change course 10 degrees south to avoid imminent collision.”

The captain is furious. He blurts another command: “This is a battleship! Change your course immediately!”

Back comes the calm reply: “This is a lighthouse.”

The battleship changed course.

On a Collision Course

The great frequency-interference battle of 2004 has much in common with this classic fable. The government, with all the power of the Department of Defense (DoD), all branches of the military, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), decided to place its giant $800 million Land Mobile Radio (LMR) battleship on a course of 390 MHz.

If they had checked their own maps, they would have known that some modest little garage door openers (actually, 50+ million of them) were already sitting squarely on the same course of 390 MHz. They’ve been there for decades.

But, as Col. Russell Miller, Commander of the 96th Communications Group at Eglin Air Force Base, admitted to me on June 2, “We did not anticipate the problems. We were caught unawares. We wish we could have anticipated that, but we did not.”

Col. Miller himself owns a LiftMaster garage door opener (GDO). When Eglin ran the nation’s first test of the LMR system in May, Col. Miller couldn’t get into his own garage.

“Our initial approach,” he told me, “was to find a way to coexist without people going to a lot of expense to change their system.” Their subsequent tests moved their frequency down to 387 MHz, and the problem went away.

However, in that same interview, the colonel also admitted, “If anyone needs agility, it’s the manufacturers of these Part 15 devices. The government is licensed to operate in this band. It’s not like the government can move. It’s the Part 15 devices that are licensed to accept interference.” (GDOs are Part 15 devices.)

Two Schools of Thought

Thus, at the very beginning of the collision course caper, government officials revealed two distinct schools of thought.

School #1: We want to be good neighbors to citizens. We need to find a way to coexist.

School #2: We own this frequency. We can do what we want. We’re not moving anywhere.

After Eglin, School #2 seemed to dominate the government’s approach for the next several months.

The game then became like two teenagers’ game of chicken, where two souped-up cars come at each other on a head-on collision course. Which driver has the most testosterone? Who moves first (away from 390 MHz)?

One thing seemed clear. The battleship wasn’t budging.

The Battle of Mechanicsburg

Then came August and Mechanicsburg, Pa., the DoD’s second installation of the new LMR system. It was the same song, second verse. Dozens of homeowners complained that they couldn’t get into their garages. But this time, they directed their complaints to their congressman, Rep. Todd Platts (R-York, Pa.).

Nonetheless, the government showed no willingness to back down. Its rhetoric, as reported in local news stories, pointed the finger of blame directly at GDO manufacturers.

In a Sept. 3 story in the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News, Lois Walsh of Eglin Air Force Base said, “The bottom line is: The DoD holds the license to those frequencies, and the garage door companies are infringing on that license. It is back in the hands of the garage door companies to come up with a solution.”

The story added that Janice Wise, a spokesperson for the FCC in Washington, confirmed Walsh’s statement. In other words, the big battleship hadn’t changed its course at all. The marching orders from the bridge (in Washington) seemed to be, “Damn the GDOs. Full speed ahead!”

Weapons of Mass Persuasion

The Battle of Mechanicsburg marked a setback for GDO manufacturers. However, this battle revealed two new powerful weapons that could influence the outcome of this stare down. The weapons: (1) elected representatives and (2) the news media.

By October, the battleship continued steaming steadily on its 390-MHz course. That’s when Chamberlain, Overhead/Genie, and Johnson Controls joined forces to form the Safe and Secure Access Coalition.

The Coalition immediately looked for help from firms that know how to use these two weapons of mass persuasion. They soon hired Edelman, one of the world’s largest public relations firms, and Akin Gump, one of the world’s largest law firms with experienced lobbyists who know how Washington works.

By early December, the Coalition was armed with a full-time director (Mark Karasek, Ph.D., Chamberlain’s vice president of engineering), a professional lobbyist (former U.S. Rep. Bill Paxon), a Web site (, and well-crafted talking points for the media:
(1) GDOs have operated lawfully on 390 MHz for decades.
(2) The military’s LMR system could overpower more than 50 million GDOs.
(3) The total repair bill could be $4 to $8 billion.
(4) Since many hospitals, fire stations, and millions of homes will have GDOs that don’t work, the problem also poses a verifiable safety risk.
(5) The military could move its frequency, and the problem would go away.

Armed with these messages, Karasek and the Coalition began the lobbying part of their strategy. Their visits to key Washingtonians included strategic stops at the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and others.

Dec. 6: Shock and Awe

Then, on Dec. 6, the Coalition launched a video news release to television stations nationwide. And on the same day, the Associated Press broadcast a powerful news story that contained many of the Coalition’s key messages. The public was urged to visit the Coalition’s Web site for more information and to contact their representatives in Washington. The story appeared on television and in newspapers from coast to coast.

As these media rockets burst in the night skies of Dec. 6, the battleship could see the red glare of thousands of potentially angry citizens, legislators, and oversight committees. In a matter of only a few days, the battleship began to slow its course. School of Thought #1 began to look more attractive to those at the helm.

A Happy Ending?

Meetings between the Coalition and the DoD began to be more productive. By the beginning of 2005, the Coalition voluntarily shut down its Web site in an effort to de-escalate the conflict. The DoD began measures to minimize the impact of its LMR system.

By February 2005, many more LMR systems had been turned on at military bases throughout the nation. Homeowner complaints dropped significantly.

All signals indicated that the battleship changed course. An ugly, costly, and complicated collision seems to have been averted. At least for now.

As Mark Karasek reported to us, “The DoD is working hard to be a good neighbor. But we still have a long way to go. And both sides are working hard to minimize problems and protect consumers.”

Applause, Applause

I applaud the Coalition for having the courage and the commitment to make its case to the people and to public officials. It cost them considerable money, time, and effort. But in the end, if indeed we’ve seen the end, the Coalition probably saved millions of GDO customers from untold inconvenience and cost.

And I applaud the military and the government agencies involved. We’ll probably never know how much difficulty they endured in order to grant their concessions. But they did the right thing. They showed compassion for their neighbors, the taxpayers who pay them, and for their own people who use GDOs daily.

Even though our governmental system is sometimes frustrating, the system seemed to work this time. Thanks to a free press, elected representatives who fight for the people, and government agencies that serve the people, the system really worked.

The First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people … to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Isn’t America wonderful?

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