The recent milestone of all 50 states and 5 of the 6 U.S. territories having opted in to the FirstNet NPSBN is significant and signals widespread support for nationwide public safety interoperability never before possible. It has always been FirstNet’s goal to convince all the states and territories to opt in to the FirstNet network. FirstNet was created for public safety by Congress as recommended by the 9/11 commission. Communications failures during 9/11, Katrina, and Sandy finally brought to light the lack of interoperability between public safety agencies and departments. While public safety has been struggling with this lack of interoperability for more than 30 years, until these disasters, elected officials and the citizens were unaware of the situation.
Now that many of the challenges that had confronted public safety have been overcome, it is important to assess future challenges and to continue the forward movement in making the NPSBN a reality. One issue currently before the public safety community concerns network competition, a challenge the public safety community must confront if the FirstNet NPSBN is to become the nationwide public safety interoperable network that has been envisioned since the beginning. Public safety has lived through the lack of interoperability for many years, and now, even before it is built, this new network is being challenged by a vendor that wants to build its own parallel network introducing its own interoperability issues.
This is not being welcomed by the public safety community, which never intended to become embroiled in a competitive battle between traditional wireless carriers. However, now that FirstNet has issued a contract to AT&T to build out the NPSBN the stage is being set for a battle. What is surprising is that the challenge to the creation of a single nationwide broadband network is coming from Verizon Wireless, a network that had an opportunity to respond to the FirstNet RFP and did not submit a bid response. Later Verizon stated it had not submitted a response because it did not need the spectrum, but in the next breath it stated it has always supported public safety and would continue to do so. Simply building out the NPSBN will not make it successful. Public safety must embrace the NPSBN as the single network that will provide the security, reliability, unique applications, and operability the public safety community has spent years promoting. In other words, it must become an interoperable nationwide platform with the addition of data and video capabilities for the public safety community.
FirstNet’s award of the contract to AT&T means, among other things, that AT&T must contractually deliver on its promise to FirstNet and the public safety community to significantly increase coverage within the FirstNet network. These efforts by AT&T are already underway and are producing significant progress. Over the next two to three years, as FirstNet/AT&T coverage surpasses traditional wireless carriers’ networks, the many benefits of becoming a FirstNet network subscriber will become obvious to the public safety community.
It is important to recognize that contrary to a claim by Verizon Wireless, it is not desirable or even feasible to duplicate the capabilities of the FirstNet network. Public safety has long recognized the challenges of linking together multiple networks to achieve interoperability, particularly in the land mobile arena. It is next to impossible to keep multiple networks synchronized with each other due to the constant challenges of upgrading network capabilities, equipment, and software. This is an obvious benefit of a single nationwide network built by AT&T for FirstNet and public safety. There are several other issues I have not seen addressed that would have a negative impact if two different commercial networks were to serve the public safety community.
First is that when the LTE standards body releases each release of LTE (multiple releases are planned in the next 3-4 years), every commercial network operator does not implement every one of the network enhancements. Each operator picks and chooses which enhancements it thinks are important to its customers. Therefore, it is possible that features FirstNet/AT&T decides to add to the FirstNet network will be different from those chosen by Verizon. LTE is a standard but that does not mean every network is identical. Another issue I have with this is that today, while both AT&T and Verizon share the same push-to-talk vendor (Kodiak, now part of Motorola), there has been no attempt to enable cross-network PTT services. In fact, these two networks have different, non-compatible versions of the PTT system within their networks.
Over the past five years since the law that established FirstNet was passed, Verizon has shown no interest in helping public safety achieve its goals. In fact, while Verizon was involved early on before FirstNet was authorized, it disappeared after FirstNet was created and laid off or fired most of its staff that had been dedicated to public safety. Now Verizon has re-emerged claiming it can “mirror” much of the FirstNet network. This is clearly not true, especially since it has no legal access to Band 14, which is the FirstNet spectrum licensed to FirstNet and provided to AT&T. The difference between the FirstNet/AT&T network and Verizon must be made clear again: AT&T has a 25-year contractual obligation to build and maintain the FirstNet NPSBN; Verizon has no contract or legal obligation to do anything similar.
Verizon has stepped back from its public safety obligations in the past and this should be a warning to the public safety community. For example, a few years ago it announced it was abandoning its 9-1-1 and public safety dispatch group and made some other decisions that were not based on the needs of the public safety community but rather were made for financial considerations that made sense for the overall corporate strategy. I have to surmise that Verizon’s commitment to public safety is not a top corporate commitment whereas the AT&T CEO has made it clear that FirstNet and public safety are a priority for AT&T.
When the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) began its effort to develop public safety grade standards, later embraced and finalized by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), its goal was accomplished with the support and contributions of many in the communications and wireless industry including AT&T and public safety, but without any involvement or support from Verizon.
Most recently during a teleconference meeting of NPSTC held Tuesday, January 9, 2018, public safety representatives Tom Sorley and Kevin McGinnis both rejected efforts from Verizon to disrupt the forward movement of implementation of the FirstNet NPSBN. Verizon had its opportunity to respond to the FirstNet RFP and chose not to do so. Now it is wrongly claiming it can create a duplicate FirstNet NPSBN that will offer the same services. Kevin is a long-time FirstNet board member and Tom Sorley is chairman of the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) that provides input to FirstNet and now AT&T. Both of these well-respected individuals refuted Verizon’s most recent claim that it has the only public safety grade network in the United States. There is no network today that can be considered a public safety grade network. However, AT&T has been tasked by FirstNet with moving toward that goal as it develops the network.
The public safety community must stay focused on its many-year efforts to have a single nationwide public safety broadband network. As FirstNet and AT&T continue to build out the nationwide network, with much improved coverage, public safety must step up and embrace the FirstNet NPSBN and take advantage of its growing capabilities. AT&T has stated from the day it was awarded the FirstNet contract that it intends to win over the public safety community by continuing to demonstrate its commitment to the first responder community.
The Verizon request to connect its network core to the FirstNet/AT&T NPSBN is contrary to good business sense and contrary to all public safety has supported for many years. There are clear security risks when connecting multiple cores and that, along with competitive business reasons, is why Verizon and other commercial carriers do not connect their cores today. Here again, both McGinnis and Sorley stated their position and the position of both the PSAC and FirstNet, that connecting multiple cores creates a host of potential issues and should not be considered.
The public safety community must once again stand up for its best interests. The building of the FirstNet NPSBN cannot be allowed to become a competitive battle between Verizon and AT&T, especially since AT&T has stepped up to the plate to build the single nationwide network public safety wants. Verizon sat out the battle but now appears to want to win a war. Congress passed a law in 2012 to create FirstNet because Verizon and others were unwilling to step up and build such a network for public safety, the stated reason being that providing priority to public safety went against their commitment to their customers and shareholders. However, today, after the fact, Verizon has changed its mind and is now willing to provide pre-emption.
The ability to move equipment and personnel from one area to another during major disasters can be solved best by use of a single nationwide broadband network. During the NPSTC meeting, the FCC representative stated that during Harvey and the other hurricanes, the FCC had to spend a lot of time and effort coordinating Land Mobile Radio (LMR) channels among those responding to assist from all over the country and they still could not communicate with units from other areas. LMR systems are not going away. However, FirstNet will make the difference and any type of emergency vehicle or first responders that travel a great distance to arrive on the scene will instantly be able to communicate with the local resources in charge. Another example of this type of out of area response was during the recent California wildfires when fire resources from 10 different states responded. This time they were not able to communicate with others from different states or districts but as FirstNet is rolled out, they will and it will save time and lives. A single network will enable this new scenario and it was the goal of the public safety community from the first time a broadband network was proposed more than 12 years ago.
Andrew M. Seybold
©Andrew Seybold, Inc.