FirstNet: Listen to Your Customers!

FirstNet is building a much-needed broadband network across the United States and into the U.S. Territories and Tribal Lands. FirstNet is an agency that works within the constraints of the NTIA and is, therefore, a Federal Agency. However, FirstNet’s customers are state and local Public Safety agencies, perhaps some from the Federal Government, some utilities, and some secondary users to help pay the bills. The bottom line is that the first responder community is FirstNet’s customer.

If the state and local agencies do not sign up for FirstNet services, FirstNet will not achieve the mandates set out for it by Congress and signed into law. FirstNet is responsible for building and maintaining this network and making sure it becomes self-sustaining. Therefore, before FirstNet builds out the network it needs to understand where the users will be and, just as important, what the users expect from the network. Then FirstNet must deliver what is expected or risk not attracting the first responder community in sufficient numbers to justify the cost of building and operating the network.

FirstNet is required by law to work with the states and determine what is needed in the way of network coverage in each, and then work with them as they decide to opt in or opt out. I believe states that opt out will be making a mistake since the onus is then on the state to provide a network and work with FirstNet to fund it. I believe a state will be better off accepting a working plan with FirstNet and then, if the network needs to be augmented over time, it can be done with additional FirstNet funds, state or local funds, perhaps some DHS funding, or from secondary users that will join the network and assist in augmenting coverage and defraying some of the costs.

Once states have agreed to work with FirstNet, what will the local jurisdictions expect? Well, what they are expecting so far is to have a nationwide network that will involve local control (whatever that is), be used solely for data and video (NOT for voice services), offer full pre-emptive immediate access to the network when needed, and have it available wherever it is needed.

This is a tall order for a federal organization that only has what is left of $7 billion available, and which is facing a number of federally imposed deadlines. The deadlines, to be fair, are into the future, but the future has a habit of quickly becoming today. Perhaps the greatest hindrance I see looming in the immediate future is the fed’s failure to let FirstNet sit down across the table from potential partners and work toward structuring deals. It appears that instead, any partnerships will have to be crafted by Requests For Proposals (RFPs) and therefore, partnerships in specific areas of the United States with specifically chosen partners may or may not be possible. Without additional funding, FirstNet will be hard pressed to deliver on what its customers are expecting.

NPTSC recently established a new task group to work on three issues: local control, quality of service, and priority access. This is a good move since while FirstNet has been promising all of these things, so far there are no standards or designs in place to ensure they will, indeed, happen. One of these three, true priority access, will be problematic due to the nature of cellular networks and LTE specifically. All you have to do is look at how poorly WPS (Wireless Priority Service), which was mandated by the FCC, is working and why the vast majority of Public Safety agencies do not use it.

Priority Access (True Pre-Emptive Access)

Most of the Public Safety agencies I am engaged with and talk with do not use WPS simply because it is not easy to access. As we all know, cellular networks become overloaded. What many do not understand is that there are multiple ways in which a network can become overloaded. Some of these can be anticipated and designed around but some are a lot tougher to implement. For example, each cell site has a portion of spectrum assigned to it that is used solely for device signaling. Each device within a cell is registered within that cell and communicates with the cell and the network via this signaling channel.

Most of the time the request for service is received by the cell site and sent on to the network brains for processing and then the device is granted access. Sometimes there are many devices trying to access the same cell site and, therefore, the same signaling channel, and there are delays in obtaining access to the network. In some cases there are simply too many devices requesting service so not all of them are “heard” by the network over the signaling channel. If the network cannot hear a request for pre-emptive service it does not matter whether that unit has priority or not—the network won’t even know there is a priority request for service pending.

There are many very smart LTE engineers working on this issue and I have been told that the use of parallel core networks—one for FirstNet and one for secondary users—could, in fact, speed up the priority process but as of now there is no definitive solution to the problem. I am hopeful NPSTC’s task group will be able to come up with some ideas on how pre-emptive priority might be better implemented. However, FirstNet customers have been told that this will be built into the network so now they expect it. If it cannot be done, that needs to be spelled out in advance of network deployment, or if it cannot be provided during the initial roll-out but perhaps in subsequent deployments, that needs to be communicated.

Local Control

Again, I am sure the NPTSC task group will review this requirement and spell out exactly what it means. FirstNet is saying it will provide local control and I am sure that is its intention, but as of this point there is no definition of what local control really is. Will each dispatch center be able to change a user’s priority in real time? Will the dispatch center or Comm-L be able to change the resolution of the videos being sent from and to an incident so data and video traffic are balanced and the network is not overloaded?

Will someone, hopefully someone working in the unified command structure of an incident, be able to reroute non-mission-critical data communications to a commercial network if FirstNet is overloaded? Will he/she be able to stop video transmissions if paramedics need to send an ultra sound (which will use a LOT of bandwidth) in real time? Quality of service is important for sure, but who will make the decisions about who gets what bandwidth on a local level and “locally controls” the network? It really needs to be spelled out so a county or city can truly comprehend what local control is, what it means, and what it might cost in personnel or other funding.

LTE Data and Video Only

Before FirstNet was established and before Public Safety had full access to 20 MHz of broadband spectrum, the idea of a nationwide Public Safety broadband network was always to augment, not replace, existing LMR voice networks. Unfortunately, during the lawmaking process in Congress, a vendor and a few others from within the Federal Government were able to convince certain members of Congress that voice over this new broadband network was only a few years away from being a reality. Enough Congressional types and their staffers came to believe this so the final bill ended up taking away voice spectrum in eleven of the top cities in the United States that had been sharing TV channels in what is known as the T-Band of the 470-512 MHz band.

The majority of the Public Safety community still believes today that this new network is about data and video and not about voice, at least for the foreseeable future. Yet there are still those within the Federal Government and the vendor community that are making pronouncements about when mission-critical voice will be available over this network. The bottom line for me is that when my sheriff, police chief, fire chief, and EMS director all come to trust voice over LTE and are ready to turn off their LMR systems, the LTE network will be ready for voice and not until.

To put it another way, it is not about a standards body passing a standard for push-to-talk over LTE nor is it about LTE engineers saying it is ready for prime time. It is about FirstNet customers saying they are ready and they won’t do this until it can be proven in real-world circumstances. Those pushing so hard for a date for implementation of LTE voice are doing a disservice to the Public Safety community. Until you have been in a police car on a Friday or Saturday night responding to calls, or inside a burning building where the only things you have to keep you alive are your air pack for breathing and your radio for assistance, or until you have been fired upon by the bad guys and need assistance, please do not be so presumptive as to make pronouncements about Voice over LTE.

The final issue for voice is that it will take FirstNet a very long time to provide a network that equals todays LMR Public Safety networks’ coverage, if they will ever be able to achieve that goal. But until they can provide the same coverage or better, replacing LMR networks with LTE PTT should not even be considered.

FirstNet’s Customers

As I am engaged with state and local Public Safety agencies I find several trends. One county that is fairly rural says it doesn’t care about FirstNet at all, it is doing fine with voice over its LMR system. Others are happy with their existing broadband services from a commercial network operator, and while they understand that during incidents they might not have full access to commercial networks, they want to wait and see what FirstNet delivers before making a decision.

FirstNet for Public Safety faces the same challenges as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. In order to convince a county or city it wants to join FirstNet and be part of the nationwide Public Safety network, they will have to see a benefit for them. This means FirstNet will have to work harder to garner customers when it is first built out. FirstNet will be building this network for a long time. It will need customers that are willing to join in early on and perhaps pay for both FirstNet and commercial service for some period of time. FirstNet has to prove to its potential customers that it is the best choice for Public Safety.

While all of us who were part of the Public Safety Alliance were working with Congress, the Executive Branch, and the FCC to obtain the spectrum and some funding, we all believed deeply in what we were doing and that it was the right thing for the Public Safety community. I know that all of us still feel the same way and I know that those engaged with FirstNet feel that way, too. The issue is how we make the local Public Safety community understand what the creation of this network can provide to all of them: full Interoperability, information where they have had none before, video, fingerprints, better EMS services, better safety for the Public Safety community, and better and quicker response for the general public.

But FirstNet needs, soon, some shining examples of a FirstNet-deployed network with real customers in the field using the network every day. FirstNet needs to track these first users, their successes and their failures, learn from them, and convey the results to the rest of the Public Safety community. FirstNet truly needs what should have been the results of all the BTOP grant recipients with their networks on the air, working, and the Public Safety community gaining knowledge and confidence about what it can do. If FirstNet waits and tries to launch a nationwide network, it won’t be as successful as if it can bring some areas up to demonstrate the network’s capabilities.

I always thought we needed FirstNet systems in major cities such as LA, New York, or Chicago, some smaller cities such as St. Louis and Cincinnati, and at least one complete state including urban, suburban, and rural network components. Build them and make them operational, track their results, make partnership deals, and move forward. FirstNet is not an AT&T or Verizon that can hire many different sub-contractors and build out the network in months instead of years using existing tower sites, existing network operating centers, and more. FirstNet has none of that, and does not have the funding to put all that in place.

Most of all, FirstNet must build this network for its customers—not for any other reason. If it is not for the local Public Safety customer to use then it is not what Public Safety thought it was getting. FirstNet has the Public Safety Advisory Council (PSAC) to assist it; the PSAC has access to NPSTC, APCO, and a host of other organizations and local resources. Using all of these resources should result in the customer gaining what it needs, not what someone else thinks it needs.

Andrew M. Seybold


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