FirstNet Partnerships

When I decided to write the article below it was with the intention of publishing it as a Public Safety Advocate. However, as the article evolved I realized that my comments on partnerships are applicable not only for the first responder (FirstNet) community, but for all of the commercial, TV White Space, Wi-Fi, and even fiber broadband services suppliers. Therefore I have chosen to send this article out to all of our subscribers. If we are to provide broadband services in areas of the United States and the world that are, today, underserved, I believe companies will have to come together, perhaps even with government partners in order to lessen the financial burden for individual companies. Read on:

It is well known that the $7 billion allocated by Congress in Title VI of the Tax Relief Bill of 2012, which also allocated the D Block to Public Safety and brought FirstNet to life, is not nearly enough money to build out the Nationwide Pubic Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) or keep it running. Further, although $2 billion of these funds are available to FirstNet today as a loan from the Federal Government, there is no fixed timeline for FirstNet to receive the balance of the funds. This will depend upon the spectrum auction results and the amount of money collected during the 2014 and later auctions.

The law does allow for public/private partnerships. In concept, the Public Safety 20 MHz of spectrum (10 MHz for the downlink and 10 MHz for the uplink) can be shared with others who want to make use of the spectrum. I say in concept since there are a number of issues that need to be resolved prior to private companies, or even governmental organizations, entering into agreements with FirstNet to share the spectrum.

1)     Any secondary usage of the Public Safety broadband spectrum must include full, and near-instantaneous pre-emptive priority for FirstNet’s primary users, the first responders.

  1. The first issue with this is that, today, while LTE supports priority access for users, this priority is assigned by the network. The units needing priority must first connect with the network and be recognized by the network. In LTE, as with other cellular-based technologies, the network’s signaling channel is the weak link in establishing priority access. If the signaling channel is overloaded and the units cannot register on the network, it does not matter whether or not they have priority access, the network will not be aware they are trying to connect.
  2. When pre-emptive priority is needed, it will usually be only within a small area of coverage. Most incidents that will require the use of all of the available bandwidth will occur within one or only a few cell sectors. The rest of the network will still be available for sharing.
  3. During major and widespread incidents, the pre-emption might encompass the entire area of damage due to a tornado, hurricane, or wild land fire, and therefore the secondary user’s access would be limited over a much larger area.

2)     The amount of spectrum available for use by secondary users must be known and quantifiable.

  1. In rural areas the reality is that there will be a lot of available spectrum available 99% or more of the time.
  2. In suburban areas we can assume that there will be some spectrum available 99% of the time.
  3. In major metro areas, until the NPSBN is up and running, it is difficult to convey to potential partners exactly how much spectrum will be available to them at any given time. Once the NPSBN is operational, it can be determined how much of the available spectrum is needed for daily routine patrols and fieldwork, how much is needed during incidents, and how many incidents there typically are in a given city at a given time.
  4. Metro area usage during heavy load times such as weekends, during storms, during incidents and special events may be difficult to quantify.

3)     If the amount of available spectrum cannot be quantified, and the amount of time during a given week or month that spectrum will be available cannot be quantified, then it is almost impossible to place a value on the secondary usage of the NPSBN.

Other issues also need to be resolved. However, Public Safety needs to find partners and find them soon. FirstNet needs some commitments as to how much money can be realized from potential partners and/or how much potential partners are willing to provide FirstNet in terms of co-location, backhaul, and related services. Any attempt at finalizing a business plan for FirstNet will be a SWAG until and unless the partnership issues are resolved and potential partners have at least expressed an interest in working with FirstNet going forward.

Over the past few years many ideas have been put forth for partnerships. Everything from dividing the country into four zones and having AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon each build out a zone, to Rivada Network’s idea of setting up a spectrum arbitrage and selling excess spectrum on the open market on a near-real-time basis with funding for the entire network coming from financial investors in Rivada. There are flaws with all of these approaches, and from a commercial network operator’s point of view, it is difficult to make a case for partnering with FirstNet given the number of unknowns and the complexity of the issues.

The latest idea being discussed is for FirstNet to join the discussions with Sprint and the smaller network operators that are part of the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) (formerly the Rural Carriers Association (RCA)). The idea is for Sprint to build a hub-back-end network system supporting all existing flavors of GSM/EDGE/HSPA, CDMA and CDMA EV-DO, as well as LTE. This network would serve at the interconnection point for all of the network operators including Sprint, T-Mobile (perhaps), and the smaller CCA membership. It would not take much to interconnect this master hub network with the FirstNet Evolved Packet Core. There is a strong possibility that priority access could be achieved quickly and easily when needed if the two networks share only the Radio Access Network portions of the networks and not the cores.

While I am no longer involved in FirstNet and am in the process of ramping back up the commercial side of my consulting practice, I hope this approach will be reviewed and discussed to determine if it might be the best fit for FirstNet. I guess I should also say that during the 4+ years the Public Safety Alliance was trying to convince members of the U.S. Congress to re-allocate the 700-MHz D Block to Public Safety that Sprint, T-Mobile, and the CCA were all on the other side, trying to convince Congress that the D Block should be sold at auction to the highest bidder. I wrote several articles countering their views, one that stands out in my memory was called, “Connect Public Safety Now is NOT Your Friend.” The article was published as a Public Safety Advocate column in December of 2010 and dissed the website run by Sprint and T-Mobile that was decidedly negative about what we were trying to accomplish.

During this time, both AT&T and Verizon Wireless were supportive of the Public Safety Alliance and assisted us in many different ways. Now that the spectrum belongs to FirstNet, I don’t think anyone within the Public Safety community holds a grudge that would stand in the way of a partnership. I know I have no ill feelings toward either Sprint or T-Mobile even though my taking the side of the Public Safety community cost me some interesting contracts! FirstNet needs the best possible set of partners it can find; partners that will be engaged with the development of the network and its operation going forward. Partners that will, going in, understand the limitations of being secondary users of the spectrum and are okay with it.

I also believe that FirstNet needs to look to other potential partners. In the more built-out areas of the United States these partners might include utility companies, which during some incidents are or should be considered first responders as well. In the more rural areas I don’t think FirstNet should limit its partnership searches to one partner in each area. For example, even before Sprint introduced its new hub approach, I was a promoter of rural telcos (both wired and wireless) joining forces with rural power companies, many of which are non-profit co-ops.

The power co-ops would like wireless network access for their smart grid work, for smart meters, and of course, to sell fixed and/or mobile services to their rural customers. These power companies have feet on the street, trucks that service their rural customers, high-tension and other poles that could be used for cell sites, and right of ways that could be used for fiber backhaul or for microwave links. Rural operators want to provide LTE to their customers to be able to offer more of the latest and greatest wireless devices and nationwide roaming. They bring to the party existing cell sites, existing networks, and people who understand the cellular-based networks they are already running. They want to expand their coverage and partnerships, and with FirstNet and perhaps the rural power co-ops, this could prove to be a three-way win for everyone.

Since I am no longer in the loop so to speak, I am not completely up to date with FirstNet’s efforts to enlist partners. I do know it is aware of and exploring each of these partnership opportunities and hopefully more. Some of the issues I have listed above, such as true pre-emptive priority access to first responders can be resolved with the right partners. However, the issue of how much spectrum might be available in the top 100 metro markets will remain unresolved, in my opinion, until the system is up and running.

The LA-RICS system in Los Angeles will probably be the first major metro area to be up and running. LA-RICS has let a contract to Motorola for both a new Land Mobile Radio system and its portion of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network. In the meantime, Harris County Texas (Houston) is already up and running with some of its planned sites. Both of these areas will provide FirstNet with an opportunity to evaluate system usage and how much spectrum might be available for partnerships in the future.

We also need to be aware that once the network is up and running and more devices become available, new applications will certainly be released, and with each new application will come an increased need for bandwidth and capacity. It could take some time to figure out how congested this network will be in metro areas. In the meantime, there is no reason to not engage with partnerships in the less densely populated areas of the United States.

FirstNet needs partners but must find ways to entice potential partners to join this venture. The network won’t be built out in a day. Even when the first phase of the NPSBN is complete, Phase II and then Phase III will be required. “Long Term” is true not only for the technology where advances are being made in future releases of the specification but also in the deployment of networks, especially FirstNet. I believe FirstNet will succeed as long as the first responder community does not try to compare the first phase of FirstNet with the current status of commercial networks such as AT&T and Verizon, which have both spent well beyond $20 billion each on their LTE system rollouts alone.

The Public Safety community needs FirstNet to succeed. The spectrum and its use for broadband video and data services will make a huge difference in the information first responders have available in the field, and will enable those back at the operation center to see what is occurring at the scene of an incident and not simply hear voice traffic. This information will result in faster responses, quicker identification of suspects, faster crime solving, and in saving lives of both citizens and first responders. Public Safety has the spectrum, it has some funding, and it has the organization charged with building and operating the network. What it needs now are the partners to make it a reality.

Andrew M. Seybold

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