Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet or SecondNet?

In The Middle Class Tax Relief Act of 2012 the section known as Title VI created FirstNet and set out the rules for building a nationwide public safety broadband network and a public-private partnership in order to build the In 2012, Congress passed and the then President of the United States signed into law the Middle-Class network using mostly private rather than federal funding. After five long years, FirstNet issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) and three companies submitted proposals (Verizon Wireless was not one of these). After much deliberation and after two of the three companies were disqualified, the contract was awarded to AT&T.

This past week, Verizon came out of hibernation and declared it will also be building out a nationwide public safety broadband network with all the elements of a network with access to the FirstNet spectrum known as Band 14 (or as some old timers call it, the D Block) which is licensed by the FCC to FirstNet. This new Verizon “Public Safety Grade” network will include pre-emption for first responders on the Verizon LTE network and a Public Safety Evolved Packet Core (EPC) that will be separate from the current Verizon back-end system. So now we have the approved FirstNet partnership with AT&T moving forward and the sleeping giant has suddenly awakened, looked around, and raised its hand.

I have to say that as an early proponent of a nationwide a public safety broadband network that will provide full interoperability between all agencies regardless of where they are in the United States or its territories, I was really surprised and dismayed at Verizon’s attempt to hang on to a few million subscribers out of the 146 million it reported in April of this year, and its apparent lack of concern for creating more, not less, interoperability issues and challenges. This is especially when Verizon could not be bothered to bid on the FirstNet RFP, stating publicly at the time that it had little interest in low-band spectrum either with the 600-MHz auction or the FirstNet spectrum since it believed spectrum higher in frequency would be more useful for small cell or 5G technology, on which it seemed to be betting the farm.

Before delving into what this latest announcement by Verizon made at the annual APCO show might mean to both the public safety community and FirstNet, a little pre-FirstNet history is in order to set the stage. During the many years the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and then the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) were working hard to convince the U.S. Congress, the FCC, and the Executive Branch that more than the 10 MHz of 700-MHz broadband spectrum would be needed by public safety and since the D Block was not picked up by any of the bidders during the spectrum auctions, the D Block should be combined with the existing spectrum to provide public safety with a full 20 MHz (10X10 MHz) of broadband spectrum.

Commercial network operators were split over supporting or opposing the public safety community. Sprint, T-Mobile, and the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) were opposed to “giving” the spectrum to the public safety community and wanted it sold at auction since neither Sprint nor T-Mobile had won any 700-MHz spectrum during the auction. Sprint and T-Mobile set up a website explaining that public safety did not need more than 10 MHz of broadband spectrum and even some within the FCC sided with this group of operators. However, both AT&T and Verizon actively supported the public safety community using their clout in Congress to support the effort and even sponsoring some of the PSA activities. Both AT&T and Verizon attended and took part in the many meetings held at the Washington Press Club.

As we moved closer to our goal and several Representatives and Senators were proposing legislation that would give up the D Block, a number of statements made by both AT&T and Verizon helped solidify our efforts. The most notable of these, at least from my perspective at the time, was a meeting attended by PSA members, some congressional staffers, and both AT&T and Verizon. When the question was asked by a staffer about pre-emption on the commercial networks, both AT&T and Verizon said they would not offer pre-emption to public safety over their other customers because it would not be in keeping with their agreements to provide commercial broadband services. Since the contract award, we are seeing both networks’ willingness to offer pre-emptive priority, but in the early days the statements made by both network operators had a huge impact on moving our cause forward.

Also during the early days, both AT&T and Verizon showed up in force at the various conferences and summits and took an active role in some of the program presentations. What happened next was interesting and noted by a number of those in the public safety community. After FirstNet was created it appeared as though Verizon slowly moved away from supporting the concept. It still had people who were known in the public safety community but at events their numbers were smaller. Meanwhile, AT&T, if anything, was more visible and supportive than ever.

The RFP

After the RFP was issued and teams started working on their responses, Verizon was low key and, in fact, the number of people dedicated to public safety on a national level was reduced. I was working on one RFP team that ended up not submitting a response but our quiet inquiries into having Verizon as a partner were met with silence. Other statements from Verizon indicated it was more interested in the higher spectrum that would be used for 5G than either the FirstNet spectrum or the 600-MHz auction. There were unconfirmed rumors that one of Rivada’s bidding partners was Verizon but neither Rivada or Verizon responded to various inquires.

It was as though Verizon had lumbered into its cave and started its long winter nap. Yet many of us thought Verizon would certainly find a way to participate because its spectrum in the 700-MHz band is basically adjacent to the FirstNet spectrum while AT&T’s 700-MHz spectrum is much lower in the 700-MHz band. When RFP responders were announced (Rivada Mercury, PDV Wireless, and AT&T) there was a lot of speculation as to whether Verizon was a partner with both of the other bidders but that was neither confirmed nor denied.

States Start Opting In

As of this week there are at least fifteen opt-in states and territories, and perhaps three more by the time this is published. The states, AT&T, and FirstNet are hard at work on the state plans and at present AT&T and FirstNet are reviewing questions submitted by State SPOCs (Single Points Of Contact) and making changes to the plans for states and territories that have not yet opted in. There have been many concerns about coverage maps provided by AT&T and I believe AT&T and/or FirstNet made a serious mistake by offering the FOC1 milestone coverage instead of today’s actual proven coverage as the starting point of the states’ coverages. The perception is that in many states Verizon’s coverage is better than AT&T’s. In some cases that is true and in some it is merely perception from Verizon users who have not experienced AT&T coverage in the last few years.

APCO 2017

Along comes APCO 2017 this week in Denver. FirstNet and AT&T were everywhere but Verizon was also a major conference sponsor and active in the program. Verizon took this opportunity to drop a press release basically saying it will be building a duplicate FirstNet network on its own network complete with pre-emption priority and a Public Safety Grade core. Unlike Rivada, which only “wins” if a state opts out and then chooses Rivada to be its Radio Access Network (RAN) vendor, Verizon can and will actively try to keep its existing public safety customers and grow its base at the expense of FirstNet and AT&T. This is where it gets messy. First let’s deal with some unanswered questions and then look at the true implications of Verizon’s awakening.

Verizon has pointed out, correctly, that it can work with any agency within a state even after the state opts in because the public safety agencies within an opt-in state (and an opt-out state) are not required to sign up for the FirstNet/AT&T service. Verizon claims it has a larger share of existing public safety users nationwide, but some will dispute that claim. However, Verizon is correct in that it can work with local, regional, and state agencies and offer services on Verizon’s own version of FirstNet (do we call it SecondNet?).

The first question I have concerns Verizon’s statement that it will offer Band 14, FirstNet’s spectrum, to public safety users on its network. Okay, perhaps, but let’s look at the issues here. Band 14 is licensed by the FCC to FirstNet—not to any network operator that wants to operate on Band 14 and can simply decide to do so and go for it. FirstNet would have to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) since Band 14 is licensed under the public safety part 90 rules and we know that when one LMR system wants to extend operational capabilities to another agency there must be an MOU in place authorizing the one agency to use another agency’s channels.

Editor’s Note: Since this article was published I have been informed of the following:

  • The license for Band 14 is held by FirstNet
  • FirstNet has a “Capacity Lease Agreement” with AT&T to:
    1. Use the spectrum to build the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network
    2. Use the excess capacity of the spectrum for commercial purposes as long as Public Safety has priority/Preemption at all times on Band 14
  • Verizon could put Band 14 into its devices but it cannot legally transmit on Band 14 without an agreement from both FirstNet and AT&T
    1. Any Verizon device on Band 14 would require a valid FirstNet SIM and the user would have to pay for two subscriptions- one for the Verizon SIM and one for the Band 14 SIM

Moreover, in the AT&T/FirstNet model, Band 14 is not the only band available to public safety. All of the AT&T LTE spectrum and Band 14 are available. With a public safety SIM in the device (see last week’s Advocate), a public safety user on the AT&T/FirstNet network will have access to all of the spectrum AT&T has allocated for LTE. So, along comes a Verizon public safety customer who has Band 14 (FirstNet) capabilities. Does he or she “roam” only on the AT&T/FirstNet Band 14 network? If so, how does FirstNet/AT&T limit these users to Band 14 only and deny them free rein over the entire AT&T network as with AT&T/FirstNet public safety users? Which EPC does a Verizon Band 14 customer use? The Verizon core, which means cross connecting AT&T and Verizon public safety cores (good luck with that!)? Or are they routed to the AT&T/FirstNet core for only Band 14 and when they return to Verizon spectrum they are reconnected to the Verizon public safety core?

Many other issues will need to be resolved. Some say they welcome the competition but I am concerned that those in Congress and elsewhere who helped craft the bill and law that created FirstNet will see that, once again, public safety is not able to keep to the agenda developed to provide a nationwide public safety broadband network so EVERY first responder regardless of where they are from or where they are currently located, can make use of the same network, resources, applications, and list of devices.

Interoperability?

Next up is the entire issue of interoperability. Today AT&T and Verizon have no roaming agreements in place between them and in reality it is not something that either carrier would even consider. So, what if the City of Phoenix Police department stays on Verizon and the Fire Department moves over to AT&T since Arizona has now opted in? Many incidents involve at least police and fire and in many cases EMS as well. Today these departments can communicate over the City’s trunked radio system but how will they be able to share data, video, location services and even communicate unit-to-unit with LTE PTT if they need to? Essentially, Verizon has shown no concern over taking the concept of FirstNet as the one nationwide public safety network and trashing it for its own purposes.

What happens over time as AT&T builds out its network and agencies see the advantages of moving from Verizon to AT&T and FirstNet and make the switch. How does Verizon square its investment with what will, over time, be a diminishing demand for public safety access to its network? And there is another issue on the interoperability table. Band 14 will not be built out everywhere on day one. AT&T says it will build it out as needed in metro areas where additional capacity is needed for its commercial subscribers. Now it is also planning, I am told, to build it out in rural America over time. So, if Band 14 were to become the “common” spectrum between AT&T and Verizon, it would only be useful for areas where it is installed. I hope FirstNet will not permit Verizon to deploy Band 14 where AT&T has not as that would certainly be the end of the interoperability vision and a return to public safety where it is today—a world where true interoperability is piecemeal around the country.

Devices

AT&T gains a huge economy of scale for building Band 14 into its devices since its other customers will be using Band 14 in congested areas when public safety does not need the spectrum. Verizon’s devices will only be equipped with Band 14 for the public safety community. Competition is good and it is healthy and it may, in fact drive down data pricing for the public safety community. However, the number one reason FirstNet was created was to provide a 100% interoperable network, coast to coast, border to border, and in all the territories and tribal nations as well. It will be used by the federal agencies and they will be able to coordinate with local agencies much better than today.

The ultimate goal of FirstNet is, to me, more important than simply who gets the revenue from the less-than-4 million “real” public safety first responders. I see Verizon spending a boatload of money and not being able to access Band 14 for its own customers in overcrowded areas is more about ego than about doing what is best for the public safety community.

However, the other side of the coin is that AT&T recognizes it has to earn the public safety business so perhaps this will serve as a wakeup call and spur its build plans on to faster and better overall coverage where it is not up to par with Verizon’s coverage today. If I was managing a public safety agency that was a Verizon customer and I fully understood the implications and issues with having two different public safety networks, I would tell AT&T that when it can offer me the same or better coverage than Verizon, I will move my units over and to FirstNet and leave SecondNet behind.

Andrew M. Seybold

© 2017 Andrew Seybold. Inc.

 

One of my takeaway’s from APCO this week was the excellent job Harris has done with its VHF/UHF/700/800 plus LTE radio. It is small and lightweight but the most important things to me are the ways in which Harris has made a very complex device much simpler to use than I would have expected. It has built in so many great ways to visually understand what channel, talk group, and LTE features and functions are available. In the old days of Comdex, in our Professional Computing newsletter we offered up our best of show list. If we were still doing that, the Harris XL-200P would be our choice for best of show. It is pricey but it is the best implementation of user-friendly operation I have seen in a very long time.

 

 

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