Frequency Flier – Door industry grapples with military’s siege of 390MHz

Like many a military invasion, the target was caught by surprise. It wasn’t some foreign country suddenly besieged by a military attack, but garage door operators when the U.S. Department of Defense elected to employ the 390 frequency, which it owned but was not using.

When the military began testing its new mobile radio system at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, industry panic set in. With an estimated 50 million or more operators using the same frequency, was the garage door opener doomed?

It began simply enough about a year ago. Homeowners living near Eglin found themselves locked out, inconvenienced and puzzled when suddenly their garage door openers went haywire. The Chamberlain Group, manufacturer of the LiftMaster brand, began fielding numerous calls. “We’ve always had some interference here and there from government systems operating on a short-term basis,” points out Mark Karasek, vice president of engineering for The Chamberlain Group. “This was different in that it was longer term and had much more powerful, fixed signals.” At the same time Chamberlain started receiving calls, so did Overhead Door Co., owner of The Genie Co. brand of operators. “At first, both of us were puzzled. We had no idea the other was having problems, especially because they were testing so the system went up then down. We were all wondering what was going on,” says Karl Adrian, president of Overhead Door’s Access Systems Division.

When the Department of Defense (DoD) launched a second Land Mobile Radio (LMR) system in Mechanicsburg, Pa., late last summer, the industry readied for a battle. Chamberlain, Overhead and Johnson Controls Inc., makers of the HomeLink Wireless Control System, joined forces to form the Safe and Secure Access Coalition. “We looked at it as hitting our companies as well as our industry, so we felt we’d be stronger to do this as one unit rather than as individuals,” Adrian says.

One of the reasons the industry was blindsided is simple mathematics. There are millions of products – from microwaves to cell phones – battling over frequency airwaves. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) keeps an allocation table that designates who can use which frequencies and what they can use them for. Also, unlicensed devices – like garage door openers – can operate anywhere except on certain restricted bands, such as TV broadcast bands and some military or scientific frequencies.

It is believed the military owns the frequencies ranging from 280 MHz to 420 MHz. In true military fashion, disclosing highly secure information to the public isn’t necessary for two reasons: who they are and what they do. Once the Coalition was able to obtain an audience with the DoD, it presented its case, with the FCC acting as somewhat of a mediator. “Once both sides became aware of the problem – and the potential size of the problem – they have been working together,” says Bruce Romano, an FCC spokesman.

Far-Reaching or Far-Fetched?

Despite rumors, there are no official plans to tie the 390 MHz frequency to nationwide police and fire departments, according to Romano. Neither will all military bases use the frequency, according to information shared with the Coalition. Although 120 systems are expected to roll out between 2004 and 2008, military bases in 15 states will not receive the system. Another factor is economics. Because the military’s budget fluctuates from year to year, it is unknown how quickly LMR systems will be activated.

The biggest – and most important – question has yet to be answered: How many operators will be affected? The answer depends on who you’re talking to. It’s estimated LiftMaster and Genie brands are in 90 percent of the some 50 million garages in the United States. In the beginning, estimates in the millions were touted by the press, and honestly, in the industry as well. “There was a point where I was wondering if this could bankrupt the company,” Adrian admits. “This could have been huge. We’ve come far from that.”

Both Chamberlain and Overhead conducted testing to determine how far-reaching and what effect the LMR systems will have. The amount of interference depends on a number of variables including the number of towers, the area’s terrain, which side of the home the garage is on, proximity to a military base using the system, how strong the signal is, etc.

“Based on some of the projections that we’ve seen at meetings with the FCC and DoD, the expected impacted area is limited,” Karasek says. “People who are right on top of a tower will be the most significantly impacted. People who are farther away from towers will see some range reduction instead of a total jamming of the garage door opener.” Also, some homeowners may be simply inconvenienced versus completely locked out. For example, they may have to be closer to the opener or may have to push the remote two or three times. “It’s become established that while this problem is not insignificant, it is manageable. What we’re trying to do is exactly that – manage it,” Romano says.

Acting as a good neighbor, the military – unofficially – has tinkered with the security system to reduce garage door interference. For their part, Chamberlain and Overhead will introduce models operating on 315 MHz, the same frequency used by Marantec America Corp. However, the companies will continue to produce operators on the 390 MHz frequency. “It’s important to understand 390 MHz openers are going to continue to work in the vast majority of the U.S. without any interference at all,” Karasek points out. “There are still some unknowns about the impact of the new DoD system, but we are hopeful that the ongoing conversations between the FCC, DoD and industry members will minimize the problem as much as possible.”

Hopping to a Solution

In addition to making the switch to 315, Overhead is taking the matter a step further. “Our plans are to go to 315 and 390 expeditiously and then look to adding anywhere from one to four more frequencies outside of the spectrum,” Adrian says. “We truly believe just a switch to 315 is a mistake. We need to go to frequency-hopping technology. We want a long-term solution and we want to protect our customers.” Adrian says a frequency-hopping product from Genie could be on the market by the end of the year. “That is the ultimate and true solution so we know, our distributors and our customers all know that they have an operator that will work today, tomorrow and five years from now,” he adds.

It is a path Wayne-Dalton may also pursue. The company currently operates on the 372 MHz frequency. “From a more global standpoint, interference from radio, TV and whoever or whatever is becoming more of an issue with garage door openers,” says Tony Ferrante, Wayne-Dalton’s director of marketing. “We are seeing, in some markets where homes are close to TV towers, they will get some intermittent interference with their openers.”

The company is aware that, at some point, the military could expand or the frequency they operate on could be affected in the future, Ferrante says. “What we’re going to try and do is continue to better understand what’s going on in the marketplace in addition to the military; looking at TV towers and cell phone towers and see what impact they have,” he says. “From a product development standpoint, we’re looking at ways of increasing the range capabilities of our transmitters and other product development opportunities so consumers aren’t annoyed. In most cases, it isn’t a constant issue, it is an intermittent problem. That’s the piece we’re trying to address.”

New, better operators, of course, especially ones that can hop frequencies, will likely raise the cost of operators. However, Adrian predicts it will be small – $5 or $10 more. “I’d be surprised if the entire industry doesn’t follow the same logic and move to frequency-hopping,” he says. “The advantage for the company not at 390 is to preach that their product is the answer. Their product is the answer right now. But it may not be tomorrow, given the information, we’re being given.”

In the meantime, the best solution for homeowners struggling with the 390 frequency is an aftermarket conversion kit. Many dealers across the country – especially ones specializing in troubleshooting and repairs – are already experienced with conversion kits, which essentially change the frequency the operator uses. The kits, ranging in cost from $20 up to $100 after installation, typically include an external receiver, power plug and transmitter. All of the major operator manufacturers have conversion kits available.

Overhead Overload

While manufacturers scramble to find long-term solutions, some door dealers are grappling with frequency interference every day. “As long as I can remember, the 390 frequency has not been 100 percent reliable,” says Deric Davidson, owner of Ken Davidson Garage Door Co., a residential repair company in Claremont, Calif. “Even a 2 to 5 percent probability of it not working has proven to be not very cost-effective for me. I have to do repeat calls, troubleshooting, and spend a lot of time and man-hours in the field to rectify that problem.” Although Davidson has already been forced to stock a handful of the 315 aftermarket circuit boards and transmitters, adding more to his inventory in light of the current frequency issue is unlikely. “I’ll probably handle it on a case-per-case basis. I don’t really want to have all of that overhead.”

Dealers who work primarily with builders are bracing themselves for the worst. “We are the largest door company in northern California, and we do mostly subdivisions, so it’s really going to hit us in an especially intense way,” says Kevin Burbridge, director of operations for Easy Lift Door Co. in Sacramento, Calif.

Another catch-22 for Burbridge: a large percentage of Easy Lift’s customers are near two military bases. “For us as a big installing company, it’s a product nightmare. It’s bad enough we’ve had to stock two brands out of necessity, that is a reality in our business, now we’re essentially carrying a third line,” he says. “We try to keep our overhead down and limit the amount of products we carry. Now we’ll have another line we’ll have to stock and keep separate.” Distributing remotes before the crew leaves each morning could turn into a logistical nightmare, Burbridge says. “I know the issue, but I’ve got employees on down to minimum wage that are handing out remotes that aren’t really abreast of the issue. It’s going to be an issue of retraining.”

For now, Burbridge is struggling with when to alert his customers. “As we deal with big builders almost exclusively, we face the dilemma of how much do we tell them,” he says. “If we notify a builder of potential issues, there could be an overreaction and they ask for full disclosure. And telling them may turn out to be unnecessary when we look back in 10 years. It could be like a Y2K thing where you don’t want to make all of these internal changes unless you have to.” “Builder lawsuits have grown so much, they want to know about any change. But I think we’re going go with a ‘wait and see’ attitude because otherwise it could be opening a can of worms,” he adds.

Giving customers at least some information is the “correct thing to do,” says Martial Maitam of Marwest Access Controls Inc., a Canoga Park, Calif., distributor of gates, garage doors, access controls and entry systems. “We have tried to pass along information to our customers as much as possible. Most of them are already familiar with the frequency change.” He also believes most consumers will understand. “When it comes to the military and Homeland Security, most Americans understand it’s a precaution we have to take now days… unfortunately,” he adds.

A Silver Lining

Some manufacturers and distributors claim there’s a silver lining to be found in all this. “We’ll be able to sell upgrade kits. There are about 40 million garage door openers in the United States and well over 90 percent are in the 390 frequency. There will be a huge market for upgrade kits,” Maitam says. “Also, the proactive dealer who doesn’t want to have any problems down the road is going to steer away from the 390 frequency.”

Many dealers aren’t convinced. Burbridge expects opener prices will go up and door dealers will need to stock and sell retrofit kits. “In a competitive market, we have to justify a markup to the homeowner and it’s not going to fly. We’ll recapture the increase but that’s it.”

Most dealers are predicting problems rather than profits. “It will be a pain. I’m going to have to have 9,000 remotes on my truck. Service will be a huge problem,” says Clayton Stewart, owner of CS Garage Doors in Nesconset, N.Y. The company carries LiftMaster and Linear operators and also does overflow work for some operator manufacturers. Stewart also worries lead times on operators will become longer – or worse, parts will become scarce. “When you jump to a different frequency, every door dealer is not going to stock remotes, transmitters and circuit boards for all these frequencies and brands.”

However, dealers also understand that keeping up to date with the issue is imperative to their future success. “I am trying to stay at the forefront and be prepared for my customers,” Davidson says. “I have to be prepared so when the market moves in that direction, they don’t have to go someplace else.” “It’s going to be anything from a Y2K big scare that amounted to nothing to a disaster,” predicts Burbridge. Regardless, he advises door dealers to plan ahead. “We’ll have contingency plans which might require us to convert an entire subdivision to a new frequency in a pinch. You just have to be prepared.”

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