While We Wait for FirstNet (A Different Take)

My original Public Safety Advocate article “While We Wait for FirstNet” was about how Public Safety should be working with the commercial LTE wireless networks. This time around I am responding to a number of calls I have received from county and regional communications directors, planners, and engineers who are in the process of building their new countywide or regional Land Mobile Radio Systems (LMR). Most of them are making use of P25, which is the digital wireless technology for Public Safety that supports voice and low-speed data services.

These people are frustrated with the lack of answers to their questions and if answers are not forthcoming from FirstNet to the states in short order, FirstNet will find that assets that could have been included in these new systems to facilitate roll-out of its network have not been included. The counties and regions are willing to include such assets but because they have no direction as to what to include or leave out, they will be left out. One county communications director who is designing and implementing a new countywide LMR system is not getting any answers, either from the state or from FirstNet and is, therefore, moving ahead as though FirstNet does not exist.

The questions he and others in his position are trying to have answered do not require a rocket scientist, but they do require some guidance from FirstNet and/or the states. FirstNet will probably say it is too early to know what is needed. The states, on the other hand, are basically saying, “We don’t have a clue.” Here is a typical scenario of what is happening across the United States today.

Counties, regions, and entire states are in the process of building out new LMR systems. These systems are designed to provide better interoperability between and among multiple agencies. If there were some guidelines as to what FirstNet might need in order to co-locate with these new Public Safety LMR systems, many of these entities would be happy to design in the needed “extras” that would make their systems “FirstNet-ready.”

The type of guidance being sought should be readily available by now. I know that before the contract for the technical consultants for FirstNet expired, work was being done to assist with local and state planning efforts. What has happened to this information since December I do not know. Some of the questions being asked are:

1)     How much backhaul does FirstNet need?

  1. Many of the LMR systems will be using both microwave and fiber backhaul. FirstNet bandwidth needs could be addressed in the system design if they were known.

2)     How much additional emergency power will FirstNet require?

  1. Oversizing a generator and batteries at time of purchase is much easier than having to add another generator or batteries later.
  2. LTE radios, unlike LMR radios, are transmitting 24/7 so the power load calculations are different.

3)     How much antenna space will FirstNet need on the tower?

  1. What are the wind-loading requirements?
  2. How high on the tower should the antennas be installed?

4)     How much space will FirstNet need in the radio shelter?

  1. Will a single rack be enough or should more space be allowed?

Additional questions need to be asked and addressed, but answering the four listed above would at least give these LMR systems planners something to shoot for and an idea of what can be done ahead of the broadband network roll-out to make it easier when FirstNet is ready to move into an area.

A sub-committee of the APCO Broadband Committee did publish a paper listing types of things that need to be considered and I believe that in the NPSTC documents forwarded to FirstNet there were some other recommendations. However, nothing, to my knowledge, has been transmitted to the states or by the states to the counties that would serve as a master set of guidelines to assist these planners as they design their systems for maximum efficiency and economy when it comes to adding the FirstNet network.

Since many of these systems are being built using a combination of local and federal funding already, not funding coming from FirstNet but mostly from within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it would make sense if the systems could be designed today so that FirstNet’s equipment would be a planned bolt-on to these new LMR systems instead of an afterthought that will require additional resources and costs. Even if FirstNet decided to make use of a commercial wireless operator (or multiple operators) to build out the FirstNet system, having Public Safety sites FirstNet-ready would be of benefit to FirstNet and those who will be charged with building out the system.

The Public Safety community wants to be more than simply customers on the FirstNet system. They want to be good partners as well. But in order to prepare for FirstNet they need some guidance and they need it soon. Many opportunities to ensure that new Public Safety LMR systems are “FirstNet-ready” will be lost unless this type of information is created and then disseminated in a timely fashion. Perhaps some of this information can be gleaned from the LA-RICS system since it appears that the LMR and LTE sides of this network will be built out concurrently.

FirstNet can save millions of dollars and the system can be deployed faster, but this requires FirstNet to move quickly to put the needed information into the hands of those in the process of designing LMR systems today. It is not rocket science. It is sound planning, and I know a lot of this work has been completed. Between the contractors who were working with FirstNet and the PSCR in Boulder, this information should be readily available. It is my view that FirstNet’s first partners should be its potential customers, the Public Safety community. There are a large number of consolidated, countywide, regionwide, and statewide LMR systems in the design process. Public Safety is ready to partner with FirstNet and all it needs are some guidelines that will assist them as they move forward with their individual projects.

Andrew M. Seybold

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