Public Safety Advocate: Will FirstNet be the OnlyNet?

The answer to the title of this week’s blog varies depending on whether you talk to the public safety community versus the technology community. However, you also need to factor in the actions of the U.S. Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and perhaps even the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Each group will have a different set of answers and, unfortunately, the final decision may be up to the federal government. History offers a clear indication that the feds are after spectrum that can be monetized by selling it at auction.

Further, those who make the spectrum decisions may not be the most appropriate people to do so. There are many operational, security, and technical issues that are not understood by elected and appointed officials so there is a danger that they will see FirstNet is a success and then begin to mandate that the Land Mobile Radio (LMR) spectrum be reclaimed and put on the auction block before the public safety community is ready to trust FirstNet as its one and only network.

In reality, the public safety community needs to be in charge of the radio spectrum it counts on to be effective and that personnel count on to keep them safe when they are in harm’s way. In an ideal world, FirstNet will be rolled out, push-to-talk and the network will evolve mission-critical status, and someone will solve the off-network (simplex, talk-around, peer-to-peer) issue which is, at the moment, a major stumbling block for many. But does the public safety community have the clout to contend with elected officials who are much more concerned about the national debt and the potential dollar value of spectrum rather than how important it is to one group or another?

Assumptions

This discussion makes some assumptions as to the status of FirstNet going forward. The first is that 100 percent of the states, territories, tribal areas, and even the federal government are onboard with FirstNet. The next assumption is that if an agency is not already using FirstNet it has coverage in its area and can become a FirstNet customer without a lot of grief. Today, we are still in the early stages of FirstNet acceptance but I think over time it will be the common interoperability platform envisioned from the beginning. The first part of the timeline then, is when FirstNet will become a pervasive network that provides coverage to all public safety agencies.

The danger of course, is that the U.S. Government will do what it did when it required public safety to give back the T-Band. It looked into the future and said, of course FirstNet will be fully viable by these dates and major metro areas can easily move to FirstNet, so let’s take that spectrum away. As we now know, that decision was based on what several technology companies were assuring members of congress and not based on reality. The first question then is will the federal government permit FirstNet to be proven by use to be 100 percent effective before it starts taking spectrum away, or while, like before, believe a few technology “experts” and start the process before ensuring public safety is really ready?

Another issue that will have to be carefully explained to those who make decisions based on financial rather than technical reasons is which portions of spectrum are viable for what types of alternate use. Elected officials don’t know and don’t care whether a certain portion of the spectrum is suited for a specific function, only how much it will bring at auction. They don’t have a clue about antenna length, battery life, and other factors that make spectrum lower in frequency less usable for mobile broadband and they have no understanding of how many different portions of spectrum can be fit into a device that can actually be carried in a hand.

It is not their job to know all that. However, most of those elected to congress have a telecommunications staffer available to guide them and I would also hope the FCC, NTIA, DHS, and other agencies that have experts on their staffs would speak up and explain the differences between spectrum at 700 MHz and spectrum at 150 MHz or even 450 MHz. Those of us in the business know spectrum is not useable and does not have the same characteristics all across the spectrum continuum and that there are major differences. Yet elected officials have seen spectrum considered for point-to-point communications (microwave) become available not only for broadband phone systems but now for the ensuing 5G evolution. I have to wonder how congress missed the opportunity to sell the spectrum the FCC has now begun to allocate for 5G or small cell use.

A Bit of History

When the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) and the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) were working to convince congress to give public safety another 10 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum for that held by and licensed to FirstNet, there were several attempts by congress in proposed bills to recoup much more of the public safety spectrum than the T-Band. At one point, just before a bill was to be released, the PSA was asked to review it and found it called for the return of all public safety spectrum from 150 MHz to 512 MHz. This was killed, but only for one reason. It was explained to those sponsoring the bill that the spectrum in question was not only used by the public safety community, it was shared with business, industrial, paging, and other licensed users that would have to be relocated and there was no suitable spectrum available for them.

As FirstNet is rolled out and more and more states join the network, and over time as more and more agencies sign up for FirstNet service, the public safety community (including FirstNet) needs to be aware of any activities by elected or appointed officials that would set a date in the future for public safety to vacate even more LMR spectrum. It already has to give back spectrum in the eleven T-Band metro areas even before FirstNet will be ready to take on this influx of users and provide them with all the capabilities they now have on their LMR channels.

Are These Concerns Premature?

In a perfect world, the public safety community would decide, over time, if it can live with only FirstNet to provide all of its communications needs. It will take putting the network to the test during storms, disasters, and major incidents. It will take the network and PTT services that run over it to be near mission critical or public safety grade and it will take someone smart enough to provide an option for off-network LMR communications to replace it. Once all of this is in place, public safety will decide when and how to use FirstNet as its only network. If it finds it is using FirstNet exclusively and no longer using its LMR systems, then and only then will it be time to make the switch.

However, we don’t live in a perfect world and public safety probably will not have the final say in when its existing LMR spectrum is to be refarmed for other purposes. The decisions that will be made to change spectrum allocations will be made first, it is hoped, by the FCC, which has some knowledge of the issues, and lastly by congress. However, there is nothing to stop congress from plowing ahead if it gets a bug that there is money in “that there” spectrum. It is time to educate those who represent all of us in congress and the best way to accomplish that is to spend time with the telecom staffers and make sure they understand FirstNet will take time to develop and prove itself. Any activities to repurpose spectrum prior to public safety being ready will be a mistake that could cost lives. Another issue that needs to be addressed is the comfort level of the public safety community having a single, nationwide network as its only network. Is that the smart thing to do in times when some want to disrupt our way of life with terrorist attacks? Is having one network the best course of action and, if so, how many levels of failover will be provided?

All of these issues need to be acknowledged and considered by the public safety community. Waiting until there is a bill in congress will be too late. Public safety and all of the great organizations that represent it need to find ways to help educate those making decisions on the future use of spectrum before the decisions are made. Waiting until they are on the table is not the smart course of action.

Andrew M Seybold
© 2017 Andrew Seybold. Inc.

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