Public Safety Advocate: Network Coverage

Thu Apr 6 19:15:34 2017

The first project that must be completed by FirstNet and AT&T within six months of the contract signing is to deliver to each state, territory, and tribal nation details of the coverage the partnership is proposing to provide. This starts the opt-in or opt-out clock, a decision that needs to be made by the governor soon after the state plan has been delivered and reviewed. I have been told there will be draft plans submitted to each state in June and final state plans will arrive in October, giving each state, territory, and tribal nation time to fully review the documents.

I believe that during the presentation of the plan and before the final opt-in opt-out decision each state will also have the ability to negotiate additional coverage either by the FirstNet team, or on the state, county, city level and perhaps also making use of other types of funding. This is what I refer to as opt-in plus. Regardless, the issue facing all of those involved is how much coverage will actually be provided and over what time span?

The first part of the coverage answer is easy. Wherever AT&T provides LTE coverage today will be covered for FirstNet. AT&T has agreed that the day after a governor opts in the agencies in that state will gain access to all of AT&T’s commercial network coverage, at first with priority access and then later in 2017 with true pre-emptive access. Further, the FirstNet RFP requires that AT&T partner with rural wireless carriers to cover at least 15% of the more rural areas of the United States, so soon after the opt-in process, and even before band 14 or the FirstNet spectrum is deployed, many agencies will have access to LTE in most if not all of their jurisdictions.

Coverage Issues

When I was working with a team on a competing bid for FirstNet before the company decided to cancel, we spent a lot of time reviewing the information provided in the RFP posting. This included what many of the states felt they needed for coverage of this network. We dissected this information and put it into three basic buckets: states that would be okay with the coverage already provided to them by one of the major LTE network providers, states that said they needed coverage to match their existing Land Mobile Radio systems, and finally there were a few that stated they needed coverage of every square inch of their geography.

This gave us information that was useful in planning our bid response. The states that would be happy with the coverage they received from one of the major LTE network providers would be easy to satisfy. Those that demanded the FirstNet partner duplicate their LMR coverage would be more difficult, and frankly, states that said they would need 100% geographic coverage meant we would not be able to satisfy those states no matter how much coverage we offered.

In the 1970s and early 1980s as I was designing what we then called two-way radio systems and was working for RCA, General Electric, and finally Motorola, we kept running into coverage requirements that were not based on a balance of need and cost. This happened as I prepared bid responses first in Philadelphia, then in Cincinnati, and finally in LA County. We kept telling Public Safety agencies that we could provide say, 90% coverage of their area for a price of say, $3 million dollars (the systems were analog in those days). To increase coverage to 95% would cost them an additional $4-5 million and we could not even calculate the cost of bringing them to 100% coverage. While this was many years ago and a totally different set of technologies, I believe this logic still holds true today.

FirstNet realized the problem between geographic coverage and covering populated areas. In the RFP it provided three different types of rural areas. The first two, rural along major and secondary highways and rural population centers have to be covered. That leaves areas of the United States, primarily west of the Mississippi, that can be categorized as very rural or wilderness and where coverage is required on an as-needed basis. This appears to be a sensible way of deciding what parts of rural America need to be covered on a 24/7/365-basis and which ones can be serviced by terrestrial or UAS (drone) flying coverage provided when needed. Unlike today’s wait of a few days for coverage, this type of fly-in coverage can happen in a matter of hours or it can be “take it with you” equipment.

More Options

What I have discussed above is based on the fact that FirstNet and AT&T are required by law to build out coverage in rural America and that many states are asking for what they believe is a rational amount of coverage. The fact is that this is a 25-year contract and just as most LMR systems did not provide all of the coverage they do today when first built, coverage was added as was needed and could be afforded. It is clear, at least to me, that AT&T will continue to enhance coverage for first responders and upgrade the network as they will be doing with their commercial networks. As I wrote a while ago that perhaps in the beginning and even over time, some of the Public Safety traffic might be routed on other than FirstNet’s band 14 but as long as there is pre-emption available and the communications works, why does it really matter what band it is on? Do you know which of the many bands your smartphone is using on your commercial network? The answer is no and it does not matter. What matters for Public Safety is that they can communicate and that FirstNet’s band 14 is their home band, period!

Anyone who attended the IWCE panel on rural coverage I moderated heard from a few of us about ways to gain even more coverage than AT&T and FirstNet can provide. There are other funds available from local jurisdictions, funds from states, and many federal funds. I don’t see anything in the RFP (but I have not read the contract) that says AT&T and FirstNet have to be the only providers of funds to build this network and put it into operation. This is a partnership between the Public Safety community, FirstNet, and now AT&T. There can be other partners, other players. Think about the sparse use of band 14 in rural areas of the United States and the fact that there is, today, no broadband for the rural citizens in many areas. FirstNet’s spectrum built-out in rural America cannot only serve Public Safety but provide broadband to those who do not have it or cannot afford it.

The Public Safety, FirstNet, and AT&T partnership can be used as a springboard to get other people connected, take tele-medicine into areas where it is not, and provide access to schools, libraries, and other facilities that do not have access to broadband. There is a big bonus to all of this for those in Congress who passed the bill that created FirstNet and for those who have hammered FirstNet about rural coverage at every congressional hearing on the subject. If those within their own district finally have broadband coverage and congressional representatives can point to the fact that he or she made it happen, the results can be counted in votes the next time they run for re-election.

FirstNet can be a win for Public Safety, a win for FirstNet, and a win for AT&T but it can also be a win for those who live without access to broadband and/or who cannot afford it. This is an opportunity for Public Safety and FirstNet to lead the charge for rural America. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

Andrew M. Seybold

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