Public Safety Advocate: End of Year Report

Final Numbers: 100% of the States Have Opted In!

Opted in by Notice from the Governor:      States, 50 + D.C.; Territories 2

Opted in by No action from the Governor:       States, 0;  Territories 0

Opted out by Action taken by Governor:           States, 0;  Territories 0

This issue of the Advocate is later than normal so we can report the final count of which states and territories have formally opted in, which are opting in by default, and how many have opted out.

The Deadline Has Passed and the Results Are In

There are 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 5 territories (not including tribal nations) and December 28, close of business, was the deadline to opt in or opt out for all but 3 of the territories. (The 3 western territories have until March to make their decision because some details were not provided to them when the states received their final plans.) It is a credit to both FirstNet and AT&T that of the 50 states, Washington, DC, and 2 territories none decided to opt out.

Opting In Is Part One of a Multipart FirstNet Decision for Public Safety

AT&T and FirstNet can and should be pleased all of the states decided to officially opt in. However, as I have said many times before, a state’s opting in does not require any of the public safety entities in that state to join FirstNet/AT&T. This includes state, county, and city agencies, tribal nations within the state and any other organization that might qualify as a public safety agency under the FirstNet rules such as university public safety, public agencies, and others.

The fact that a state has opted in means public safety within that state can choose one of several options:

  • Join the FirstNet/AT&T network as agreed to by the state.
  • Negotiate with AT&T for better pricing, better coverage, or perhaps an agreement to allow the local agency to provide additional funding, or fiber or radio access network deployment that AT&T will then manage and operate as part of the FirstNet/AT&T network. An advantage for AT&T is it will also be able to expand its own commercial customers’ footprint as well.
  • Negotiate with AT&T and set a goal of increased coverage AT&T will have to provide in order to win the business.
  • Stay with their existing commercial broadband supplier for the long term, or for the short term, or until AT&T satisfies item 3 above.
  • Not make use of any broadband service and continue to rely on only Land Mobile Radio (LMR) for their communications.

The choices should be carefully weighed. The advantages of joining the FirstNet/AT&T network are many. Some of these include access to all approved public safety applications, approved devices, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to go almost anywhere in the United States and be able to communicate during an incident with the local agency running the incident. Further, since FirstNet is also a nationwide network, for the very first time, units away from their own territory on mutual aid responses will also be able to stay in touch with their own agency and dispatch center to schedule personnel changes and report on other issues. FirstNet/AT&T will also enable single logon credentialing and automatically assign access rights to those who have permission to access state and local databases and other resources.

Coverage Is a Big Concern

Among many agencies with which we have discussed the issue of coverage, the perceived difference between the coverage of their existing commercial broadband provider and FirstNet/AT&T coverage is somewhat of an impediment. Yet agencies that have reached out to AT&T and obtained devices to run their own coverage comparisons are finding that the perceived differences are usually based on tests run 4 or 5 years ago and may not reflect the current state of coverage in a given area today.

We recently discovered perhaps the best mobile network coverage testing device available today. It is the Sierra Wireless mobile modem model MG90. It is capable of dual Security Identity Modules (SIMs) and it monitors two networks at one time plotting the coverage of both. The results of the testing can be downloaded and compared in real time. This modem can be installed as a standalone modem (not in live service) simply to be used as a tool to compare coverage as a mobile unit is driven around. When it is used in its full-service mode it is connected via a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection. If both SIMs are active, it will automatically switch networks when the vehicle moves into an area that has better coverage on a secondary network. If an agency has a contract with FirstNet/AT&T for full service and an on-demand use contract with another broadband provider, in the event AT&T does not have coverage in a given area, this modem can switch to the alternate broadband network until the unit is back in AT&T coverage.

Interesting Findings

One of the things we are becoming aware of that probably should have been more obvious, is the number of agencies where those in charge of the LMR network have little if anything to do with the broadband devices in use. We came across this in working with a county in a western state. Not only is the communications department that is the go-to agency for LMR communications not directly involved in the existing broadband usage, in many instances the law enforcement and fire/EMS departments within the same jurisdiction are using two different broadband providers. Add to this that many cities and counties have a master agreement with a vendor that includes all voice, text, and data services across all governmental agencies including public safety. This diversity in who manages broadband services for an agency or an entire county or city is one of the first things that needs to be addressed.

I believe the best way to handle this is to include the communications organization now handling LMR services in the broadband decision-making process. Many communications sections have told me they are fine with not having to also manage broadband because they are already short of staff and funding. However, a city or county could perhaps save a lot of money going forward by looking at LMR, public safety, and other agency broadband requirements, and then adding in the requirements of the existing 9-1-1 and dispatch centers and their plans to migrate to Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911).

There is money to be saved by combining resources, sharing towers, running fiber and microwave systems that serve multiple types of communications services, and more. Mobile broadband requires high-speed backhaul, LMR connections between sites over copper T-1 circuits today that will have to be upgraded since copper is going away as fast as the telcos can put fiber in the ground or on the poles, and Next Generation 9-1-1 activities will rely heavily on high-speed backhaul and access. In other words, going forward, the most important ingredient for any city or county is not necessarily the wireless networks but the fiber and microwave services over which any and all of these networks can operate and be controlled.

Rural Broadband

We have been working with rural counties for the past few years and we have always kept in mind that running fiber (which is being done more and more with federal grants) is not the most efficient way of providing broadband services to rural America. In fact, many organizations in many states believe fiber to the home or business is the only way to provide rural broadband. Our take is very different. Extend fiber or microwave into an area and then choose the best broadband transport from the fiber to the hospitals, universities, businesses, homes, and oh, yes, to the public safety community as well. There will never be an economical model for extending broadband to rural America but taking it there piecemeal and by different sources is not at all cost effective. In reality, the issue we normally run into is a lack of coordination between the county broadband commissions and those seeking federal funding. Now, with FirstNet/AT&T required to cover rural America, perhaps it is time to explore how the FirstNet network can become the hub for services not only for public safety broadband but beyond that for the businesses and homes in rural areas. FirstNet/AT&T is a private/public partnership, and it is the largest one I know of in the United States. There does not appear to be anything in the law that created FirstNet that would preclude other partners from working with FirstNet/AT&T to extend the reach of the network. In fact, in the FirstNet RFP, the winning bidder was required to partner with a number of rural wireless carriers.

The End of 2017

This is the last Public Safety Advocate for 2017 and it has been a great year for us. We aligned the weekly Advocate with and our subscribers almost doubled this year. The number of readers who catch our posts on Twitter and LinkedIn has also increased. So first and foremost, we want to thank all of you who read the Advocate week after week. I know some are more widely read and disseminated than others, because the topics chosen each week may or may not be top of the mind to our readers. Having said that, we are open to suggestions and comments, good or bad. One thing you will notice is that no matter what comments are on LinkedIn or, I never erase them as they are all legitimate input that I take seriously. I do enjoy receiving positive comments of course, and most recently I received an email from one of the committee members for a state thanking me for the articles and letting me know he had shared my views on opting in with the committee and that helped them make their determination.

This year has been great for FirstNet and more importantly, for public safety communications. However, it has been a difficult year for the public safety community as well with hurricanes, flooding, and major fires in both northern and southern California. We lost many members of the public safety community including some who were shot simply because of the uniform they wore. I hope 2018 will be a better year for all of us and that as many departments as possible will take advantage of FirstNet. AT&T says the Public Safety Core, in many respects the heart of FirstNet, will be up and running by the end of the first quarter of 2018. Full priority pre-emption is available on the network today and was turned up ahead of schedule. 2018 will see new devices, new applications, and will be a key year to learning how best to take advantage of the network and what public safety will find most useful to make their jobs easier and safer.

In closing, I wish each and every one of you the best possible 2018. It is my intention to continue to provide a weekly look into how FirstNet and AT&T are progressing, and this includes the bumps in the road to final network deployment. I am excited about 2018. The network is real and it is up and operating for those who decide to take advantage of it. The work that started years ago by a few is becoming a viable and important communications tool for the public safety community and that is what it is really all about. This is not about FirstNet or AT&T, it is about providing the best possible combination of communications capabilities to the public safety community. FirstNet/AT&T is a great tool but we cannot forget that land mobile radio will continue to be the lifeline for the public safety community for a long time to come.

Lastly, I hope 2018 will be the year when the public safety community can convince Congress that moving 11 major metro areas off the T-Band is a bad mistake and that part of the law needs to be reconsidered and amended.

Happy 2018 to everyone!

Andrew Seybold
©2017 Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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