Part One of a Multi-Part Series
How will we build the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) and attract the Public Safety community to use it? This will be the most complex network ever attempted by and for the Public Safety community. The benefits are many: new capabilities, new services, better response times, better incident management, better tracking of personnel and assets, and more ways to ensure the safety of the first responder community. But it is still a huge undertaking. The commercial operators that have built nationwide networks have done so over the course of many years and, with one exception (Sprint), they have combined other networks with theirs in order to grow a nationwide footprint.
The starting point came when Congress and the President awarded Public Safety the spectrum—20 MHz of prime 700-MHz spectrum. They also allocated $2 billion to begin the process with an additional $5 billion to be available once the spectrum auctions have been successfully completed, and provided us with a governance organization in the form of FirstNet to oversee this network and make it a reality. The FCC made sure that Public Safety will be able to use the most modern broadband technology available, Long Term Evolution (LTE). But it took many years of hard work by a unified Public Safety community to obtain what we have so far. Now it is important that FirstNet and the Public Safety community work together to make this network happen.
In this, the first of a multi-part series, I will attempt to outline what I believe are the steps that need to be taken to move forward with this network—a network that will both serve the Public Safety community for many years, and that will live up to the Public Safety community’s expectations. There are many steps that need to be followed, some serially, meaning one after the other, and others in parallel if we are to make this network a true nationwide network in a timely and cost-effective fashion. As mentioned above, the first several steps have been completed, but many more are needed. Below are the beginnings of a list of these steps as I see them, and there will be more that we only discover during the process:
1) Obtain the spectrum: Done.
2) Obtain the funding: We have SOME of the funding needed to complete this network.
3) Set up the organization to build and manage the network on a nationwide basis: Partially done. FirstNet and its Board of Directors is in place and beginning to move forward with filling out other positions with those who will facilitate progress. Commercial network operators have hundreds and thousands of people assigned to building and maintaining their own networks. FirstNet will have to make a number of decisions during the upcoming months as to how many people will be needed, if it will employ a project management company, and other for-hire assets.
4) Empower the BTOP grants recipients to return to building out their networks in order to gain real-world knowledge and feedback on the network. FirstNet should be open to use a hosted core or obtain its own core that can then be integrated into the nationwide core.
5) Determine what LTE attributes should be included in the network on day one of its operation, NPTSC has provided FirstNet with the requirements.
- Recommendation: Data and video services only, NO VOICE at this point
6) The heart of the network is the core or Evolved Packet Core (EPC)
- Determine where redundant cores will be located.
- Determine whether major cities, regions, and states will be permitted to augment this nationwide core with their own core (purchased with local dollars) in order to increase reliability of the network. They should be required to meet the NPSBN mandate for systemwide updates and application updates as the nationwide system is upgraded.
- Determine the cost of this nationwide core and how soon can it be put into place.
7) Meet with the states, tribes, and territories to develop a plan to gather the information that will be required by FirstNet for each state
- Each state will need to reach out to its local jurisdictions and determine what assets are already in the ground and available to FirstNet to assist in the construction of the network. FirstNet is required to work with the states on gathering this information, but the states do not have a good handle on what local assets are already in place. A lot of detailed information must be collected by the states for each jurisdiction. Currently, a sub-committee of the APCO Broadband Committee is working on a template for the information needed to complete this assessment. Some states are already collecting this information but there does not appear to be a standardized format. DHS/FEMA/FCC has appointed field teams to assess Statewide Communications and Interoperability Plans (SCIPs) and compliance with the National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP). FirstNet will need to do the same thing in order to confirm that they have received the requested information with minimal conflicts.
8) Determine what type of LTE coverage will be provided to each area simply by using these existing Public Safety sites. This will require propagation studies as well as determining if there is space at the site, including room for the antennas on the towers.
9) Determine which commercial networks are willing to partner with FirstNet
- How will spectrum sharing work for these public/private partnerships?
- Will this network have enough capacity to enable sharing even in the larger metro areas?
i. My recommendation: No network sharing should be permitted in the top 50 markets until Public Safety has loaded the system with all of its own devices and real-time information regarding available capacity can be measured.
10) Determine which commercial sites are available within each jurisdiction to fill in the required coverage
- What is the cost for FirstNet to harden these sites, what are the monthly costs to occupy these sites, and more information must be gathered. Minimum standards will need to be used to determine this; perhaps something similar to the Motorola R56 baseline requirement could be used.
11) Identify other public sector organizations that are willing to partner with FirstNet
- Rural telcos and power companies
- Medical organizations
12) Commence network design once this information is gathered and areas of network coverage can be obtained
13) Assign and weigh costs against the available federal funds and funds states or local areas might be willing to contribute once the network has been designed. Funds through in-kind investments from the public partners must be calculated as well as ongoing operational costs.
14) Decide how best to build out the network with the available funding at this point
- FirstNet has stated publically that it wants to build out both metro and rural areas at the same time, but some priorities will need to be established for these build-outs.
- Review funding options: Return to Congress for more money, ask states and local entities to contribute, gather more partners, use more spectrum sharing, and more.
15) Meanwhile, BTOP networks should be up and operational
- Learn from their deployments and any mistakes made along the way. This information will prove invaluable for constructing the full network. Each BTOP should be required to report to FirstNet the status of the network on a monthly basis using a standardized set of use and performance metrics.
16) Deploy the network. While it seems as though this might take an enormous amount of time, I believe that many of these tasks can be performed in parallel with each other.
Of course, there are other views on how this network should be built. One I keep hearing is that the top four commercial operators will be hired to deploy the network using their existing LTE vendors and their existing sites and that few, if any, Public Safety sites will be required. This way the cost of the network can be kept lower. Each network operator would be incented because the Public Safety devices, as envisioned by FirstNet, will include not only the Public Safety LTE network but all four of the commercial networks as well, both 3G and LTE technologies, and satellite capability for areas that will never be covered by the network. These devices will also need Bluetooth, GPS, and perhaps both public Wi-Fi and the Public Safety 4.9-GHZ band built into them.
When I consider the resources available, I believe there are better ways to accomplish what the acting General Manager of FirstNet envisions. For example, instead of including satellite service in every device, what if we made better use of the Public Safety 4.9-GHZ Wi-Fi-type spectrum? It is true that this spectrum is currently used for many fixed, point-to-point systems for camera backhaul and voice communications links, but we have 50 MHz of spectrum at 4.9 GHz and we could allocate a portion of that spectrum for mobile devices. Public Safety is very familiar with making use of vehicular repeaters or PAC-RTs as they are sometimes called, and 4.9 GHz would make an ideal relay system for the LTE network. One example of how it might work goes like this:
Police, fire, and EMS in rural areas would have LTE modems in their vehicles as well satellite terminals. There are ways the satellite terminal can be used to take over existing LMR PTT services as well as LTE broadband services when out of coverage. The device carried by first responders could still have Public Safety LTE and the four network operators’ networks built in or not, but when they left their vehicle they would use the 4.9-GHz link to talk back to the vehicle and the vehicle would then repeat the traffic over the LTE network or over the satellite network. It would be possible to use this link to extend the range of LMR radio systems as well.
We need to think not only about the network costs, the capital expense to install it and the monthly operational costs to run and maintain it, we also need to keep in mind the cost and complexity of the devices for field use. One of the main goals for using LTE in the first place was that it is a worldwide standard for wide-area broadband, therefore the device costs will be less than if Public Safety were to use some other technology. However, if we design devices that require device vendors to build special models only for Public Safety, we are liable to end up paying a premium for them. The expectation among many within the Public Safety community is that these devices should be in the sub-$500 range but the reality is that what we pay, today, for an LTE device on a commercial network does not reflect the true cost of the device. If you buy an iPhone on AT&T or Verizon with a two-year contract, AT&T and Verizon subsidize the cost of that device. If you were to walk into an Apple store and purchase an iPhone 5 with no contract, the phone would cost you more than $800—for a phone built by the millions.
Another example would be the Samsung Rugby Pro. It is a ruggedized (not Mil-Spec like most LMR radios, but pretty solid), Android-based, LTE smartphone. The two-year contract price is about $99, but here again, without the network operator subsidy, your real replacement cost is about $450. Keep in mind, this price does not include Public Safety Band 14, all of the other networks’ spectrum, or satellite service.
The cost of the devices will be borne by the local entities thus we must secure the best pricing possible for these devices. FirstNet is confident that there is enough interest in building devices for Public Safety, and that other network operators will want to share the spectrum, that the number of devices will be in the millions to keep the pricing low, but I believe we need to look at alternatives such as those mentioned above and others to ensure that we secure these devices at the best possible pricing. I don’t believe that commercial users of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network, that will have secondary access to the network, will want to pay for a device that includes satellite capabilities when they will be precluded from using the satellite or will never travel to areas where the satellite is the only form of communications available.
FirstNet has its work cut out for it. The challenges are many, the money not enough. FirstNet is being creative, exploring many options and alternatives, but at the end of the day this network must be for Public Safety and provide the services Public Safety wants and needs. Public Safety users must have absolute priority and it must be a managed network. It needs to be built from a technical perspective as a nationwide network but it must be operated on a local-control basis, and it must be as robust. We also need to keep our LMR radio systems up and operational. Voice will remain the backbone of all Public Safety communications systems. When a first responder is in trouble or needs assistance quickly, he/she won’t ask for help over the LTE network, the call for help will go out over a voice device.
In the next installment of this series I will dive deeper into these and other issues facing FirstNet and the Public Safety community. As the FirstNet Acting General Manager stated at the recent APCO Emerging Technology Forum, FirstNet’s next mission is to meet with the states, tribes, and territories and begin gathering the information it will need in order to continue to lay out the network criteria. This will be a long and involved process, as many of the states are not prepared to provide what FirstNet will require—but it can and will be done. The results will hopefully assist FirstNet in moving down the list of items that need to be completed as we head toward the ultimate goal of establishing this much-needed network.