For the past two weeks I have been sidelined with a nasty infection I appear to have brought home as a souvenir from IWCE in Orlando. Many important things happened during this time so this week I will recap some of them and attempt to catch up. Some of the news has to do with the fact that FirstNet completed its Evolved Packet Core (EPC) for use by only the first responder community, Verizon says its core is up and running and the FirstNet core is “vaporware,” the FirstNet Authority tasked FirstNet to build out public safety band 14, AT&T has stated that the FirstNet network build-out will happen a lot quicker than five years, and much more.
Let’s start with the FirstNet core. The core of an LTE network is the brains of the network. AT&T has been offering up all of its LTE spectrum with full priority and pre-emption for public safety and now the redundant brain of the network is also up and running. This means several important things. First, the public safety network is really end-to-end and available for public safety only, and the core is hardened and separate from AT&T’s customer core, ensuring Public safety traffic will remain separate and apart on the overall AT&T LTE network and band 14 (the FirstNet spectrum). The core is the final step in the end-to-end encrypted LTE network. Because public safety devices have their own SIM identification number, they are instantly identified as members of a network riding on a network. Public safety users, while on the same LTE spectrum AT&T is using for its commercial users, are segmented so public safety users have priority, better data encryption, and access to the public safety core. Even when AT&T’s secondary (commercial) users are sharing bandwidth they have no access to the FirstNet core or any way to intermingle with FirstNet users.
It is really a shame that Verizon has to interject itself into the EPC or core debut by stating that it too has a core and, according to an article in Inside Towers, AT&T’s core is “vaporware” while “Verizon’s public safety private core is open for business. AT&T’s announcement underscores that they’re deep into planning, but today are just offering a vaporware core,” said Verizon’s spokesperson Kevin King. In addition, the carrier “offers public safety customers preemption and mobile broadband priority service at no additional charge.” Prompted by this statement, which is blatantly false, a FirstNet spokesperson responded to the allegations with this statement, “Public safety’s FirstNet core is a dedicated build of hardware, plus a Network Operations Center, dedicated team at the Security Operations Center, dedicated customer care – which public safety has never had before, certified devices and apps, and dedicated disaster recovery assets. For many years, this is what public safety has been asking for and it goes far beyond for first responders in comparison to any commercial network. A separate physical core is what public safety asked for so they can be confident in the network’s security, and why we included it in our [FirstNet’s] RFP. It takes time and effort to build and test a new physical core and we are pleased to have it delivered ahead of schedule.” I, for one, don’t know why a wireless network operator that did not step up and reply to the FirstNet RFP and did not contest the award of the contract to AT&T, now believes it has the right to try to compete in the FirstNet arena. If Verizon wanted to compete it should have started with an RFP response.
Band 14 Task Order
When the FirstNet Authority issued the task order to FirstNet to build out band 14 nationwide, it marked an important milestone for FirstNet. The band 14 spectrum is licensed to the FirstNet Authority by the FCC and the responsibility to build out this spectrum has been turned over to FirstNet (built by AT&T). There are a number of reasons band 14 is needed in different areas. First, it is the spectrum that a large number of public safety personnel worked so hard to wrestle out of the hands of the FCC and Congress. Next, unlike the rest of the LTE spectrum in use for commercial services, it is governed by part 90 (public safety) rules of the FCC so it can provide higher-powered devices to increase the range of LTE in band 14. For AT&T this means two things. First is the fact that in the very few places in the United States where AT&T does not have licensed spectrum, band 14 can be used for public safety and then on a secondary basis for providing services to the commercial sector, and probably most important for AT&T is that this spectrum will be used by AT&T in urban areas where there is high demand for spectrum and band 14 can be used for secondary users to help add bandwidth and capacity to the AT&T commercial network when public safety is not using it.
It is this last point that was the incentive to AT&T and the other bidders to stand up and submit a response to the FirstNet Authority’s RFP request. Band 14 was also intended to serve the community in a dual capacity. It is available for public safety 24/7/365 on a pre-emptive basis and at the same time it is available for secondary commercial users in urban and other high-use areas as well as in rural areas. It turned out that since AT&T offered up not only band 14 but all of its existing LTE and future 5G spectrum assets, that a band 14-only system where the excess capacity would fund the build-out has been replaced with a new model, but the excess capacity of band 14 is still the reason a company such as AT&T is willing to spend its own $billions on the FirstNet build-out. The six $billion payable to AT&T over the course of the contract is simply a way to kick-start the network. It should also be understood that taxpayers did not have to provide this federal funding because it was funded by the last set of spectrum auctions.
The business model for band 14 changed when AT&T bid on the RFP. We had all assumed the network would be a band 14-only network and we would have to wait up to five years for it to be available nationwide. Instead, AT&T pre-empted the build-out by offering up its own spectrum in addition to band 14. The business model for AT&T still follows the basic plan for profitability for AT&T but perhaps packaged a little differently while providing public safety with more spectrum access than expected. The result is that band 14 is still a very important portion of the spectrum for public safety but since AT&T has made all of its LTE and 5G spectrum available, there should not be nearly as many times when full pre-emption is necessary for public safety.
Band 14 is ideal for use in rural areas because of the high-power capabilities. Today’s cell phones have an output of 23 dBm or 200 Mw while band 14 permits an output power of 31 dBm or 1.25 watts. This is a huge increase in power from the handset back to the cell site and as we know in normal LTE networks, the further you are from the cell site the less throughput (data speed) is available. Being able to add 8 dBm to the output makes a huge difference not only for public safety systems that will gain more coverage at higher data rates but also, as part of a rural broadband initiative, it can provide faster data speeds further away from each cell site. Using band 14 where it is not in demand by public safety can provide very fast fixed and mobile wireless services for education, medical needs, citizen access to the Internet, and much more. The leader in the high-power segment of the public safety market is a relatively new company called Assured Wireless. Its website at assured-wireless.com provides lots of interesting information on the differences in coverage and capacity between a 200 Mw and 1.25-watt LTE radio.
The FirstNet Association
The new guy on the block is the FirstNet Association and I am pleased that our company, Andrew Seybold, Inc., is a charter member. The association is not designed to compete with nor replace any of the other public safety organizations but rather to provide a platform for end users and vendors to discuss issues associated with the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) known as FirstNet. The association organizers have all been deeply involved in the FirstNet efforts for many years. Dues are $45 per year and membership is open to anyone with an interest in FirstNet. Al Gillespie, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and president of the FirstNet Association, stated that, “The mission is to bring the users, the company, the federal organization—and all of the peripheral pieces that come to that—into a forum where they can share ideas and find out what’s working for each of those folks in their own areas and how to improve the service to the end users, the public-safety folks.” Take a look at the website FirstNetAssociation.org and join today. I plan to take an active role in this new organization because I think it will provide a platform to learn what we are doing right and wrong as FirstNet becomes the best it can be.
There is much more going on but I am still recovering from my two-week absence without leave situation, so look for more back at our usual Thursday morning time.
Andrew M. Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.