Public Safety Advocate: 2019 Overview

As we start the New Year, I would like to once again let you know that what may seem to be an AT&T leaning on my part is not. I believe in FirstNet and have fought for more than ten years for a nationwide broadband network. AT&T was the winner of the RFP so my comments regarding progress, of course, include AT&T. There were three bidders to the RFP, and a number that decided for whatever reason not to respond. For example, I was on a team for a very large Silicon Valley company that came close to bidding. We felt we had a winning proposal and the CFO agreed as did most of upper management. However, just before the deadline, the CEO decided that since this particular company made its money on short-term payback projects and FirstNet would require a sizable investment upfront and a payback over the twenty-five-year period of the contract, he should cancel the effort. 

Public safety communications has been my life for many years and I worked with a number of talented people to help make broadband a reality and then help it become an actual network. AT&T’s bid was over and above what we expected since it offered up all its LTE spectrum for public safety and has, as far as I know, met every milestone in the RFP ahead of schedule. There are now more than 5,250 public safety agencies using FirstNet. There are still issues to be resolved and in some cases I have recommended to various agencies that they continue to use their existing commercial broadband supplier until FirstNet coverage meets their requirements. For others, I have recommended a dual-network approach, with a contract with FirstNet and a secondary vendor that would base its charges on an as-used basis. While this option may provide better broadband communications for an agency when they leave FirstNet for the other vendor they lose access to all of the FirstNet specific applications, features and functions.

Overall Picture

The big picture view I have of public safety communications is that it is underway but taking much more time than anyone expected. It is a homogeneous environment where Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) feeds into both the Land Mobile Radio (LMR) and “FirstNet (Built with AT&T)” networks and provides for citizen input vetted by the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), thus making the public safety community’s job easier and safer. This will lead to more lives being saved, faster results in apprehending criminals, the ability to put fire equipment and personnel where they can attack a fire with the best results, and keep track of those inside a structure.

We are only at the beginning of this all coming together. First on the scene was FirstNet, next will be the realization that land mobile radio will be an important partner to FirstNet, and finally, we will, hopefully, see new funding to make NG911 a reality nationwide. The result will be a fully integrated communications strategy that works regardless of where agencies will be called to respond and whatever the incident involves. 

It took many people from the public safety community, vendors, consultants, and representatives from mayors’ and governors’ associations to make FirstNet a reality. However, FirstNet alone is not the entire future of public safety communications but it is one of the most vital elements.

I believe no matter who won the RFP and was building the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN), investing their expertise and their money, I would be right here supporting them. AT&T won the bid and FirstNet the Authority won a court case that one of the bidders filed. AT&T came out of the gate ready to move forward, partially because individuals within AT&T were working with Congress, the FCC, and the Executive Branch alongside us the entire time and supporting us from the very beginning. My focus is on the overall public safety communications picture and right now, FirstNet is garnering everyone’s attention. I also write about the T-Band, what is happening with the 6-GHz and 4.9-GHz public safety spectrum, and how all of these are important issues that need to be resolved. Those who disagree with the way I treat FirstNet (Built with AT&T) can send in comments that will be printed below the article, or simply ask to be removed from the subscriber list. In 2018 we almost doubled our subscriber base and lost only a few, some because they disagreed with what I wrote but mostly due to retirement. Let’s spend 2019 working toward the ultimate goal of an end-to-end communications platform for public safety. One that starts with citizens requesting assistance or reporting an incident to those who respond to these requests. That, to me, is what FirstNet, LMR, and NG911 are all about.

Ongoing Efforts

FirstNet has announced that it has deployed Band 14 at 2,500 sites around the United States have 425,000 Public Safety Users from 5,250 agencies and these numbers are growing. LTE is being expanded and added where needed, and 5G small-cell systems are beginning to be deployed. We have heard that in 2019 there will be handheld devices that will operate on both LTE and 5G. This will be true in urban areas first and it will mean a much faster data and video delivery as well as more voice capabilities. Further, what is deployed by AT&T also becomes part of FirstNet.

Meanwhile, the 3GPP standards body is working diligently on LTE release 16, which includes more “mission-critical” standards. We will have to wait until these new standards are ready for field trials and see how well they work. Standards are important not only for FirstNet but for all the other public safety broadband systems around the world either being implemented or in the planning stages. 

Public Safety Grade

The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) published an important document for what can be considered public safety grade. It covers all aspects of dispatch, backhaul, sites, and much more and is being referred to more and more as LMR systems are upgraded, NG911 is being installed, and by AT&T as it hardens its sites moving forward. Failures can be expected in all of the systems, it is impossible to build truly bullet-proof networks unless we have access to all the funds in the U.S. Treasury, which won’t happen. Using this as a guide, each new or enhanced system and each new addition to a communications system can take on more public safety-grade attributes.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Recently, more and more agencies are acquiring Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones). One or more were used by NYPD during the Times Square New Year’s ball drop, I have seen demonstrations of lifeguards sending out UAVs to swimmers in distress—the drone drops an inflatable “log” that swimmers can grab onto and swim safely to shore. UAVs are used for surveillance, are or will be replacing or augmenting helicopters during high-speed chases, and, hopefully, used above wildland fires (details need to worked out so as not to put fire-fighting planes and helicopters in harm’s way). UAVs can provide video of an incident, act as stationary or moving FirstNet and LMR relays in the sky, and used on search and rescue missions. Radio towers, high-tension lines, and more are already viewed by drones to access any damage, rusted bolts, or other potential areas of failure. As UAVs make their way into public safety, service organizations including the fire service, which already has groups to help set up standards, are being formed.

As I said last week, I expect 2019 to be a great year for all forms of public safety communications including NG911, LMR, and FirstNet. Perhaps with some of the personnel changes in DC and the amount of press being given to the lack of rural broadband, 2019 will be the year Congress gets its act together and forms a new broadband organization to gather all the various agency grants, put them into one place, and make sure the work is being done and the money is spent where it is most needed. Of course, partners including smaller carriers, ISPs, and FirstNet can play a major role. It should not take years and years to provide broadband, fixed wireless, or a combination of both for whom broadband is not available, those who need it, and those who cannot afford it.

FirstNet: The Beginning

Looking back at the first twenty-three months of active FirstNet build-out, devices, and applications, I think this is the starting point for those already on FirstNet but are still in the process of figuring out how to improve their communications strategy beyond Push-To-Talk (PTT) over FirstNet. FirstNet (Built with AT&) is becoming more mature but the inclusion of the ability to marry 911 incoming voice, data, video, and then data-and-video available at time of dispatch or during an incident will make FirstNet what it was visualized to be—a new high-speed wireless system with public safety priority and the capability to move data and video from dispatch to the field, to those on the incident to provide a different vantage point, and certainly to send information back to the operations center as well as senior officials who are in the field but not at the incident.

What we have seen so far with FirstNet is only the beginning of what will become the network, and the type of data, video, and voice it handles. We are also in the beginning stages of combining or tying together LMR PTT with FirstNet PTT, and then Push-To-Video over FirstNet, and much more. Add the Internet of Things (IoT) to other capabilities that are rapidly coming online and what I see is that FirstNet is out in front of all of this. Therefore, it will be easier to incorporate new technologies, devices, and ideas as the network continues to grow. Last year was a very good year for all forms of public safety communications and 2019 should be even better.

Winding Down

The Passing of Ed Reynolds

Ed Reynolds was one of the first members of the FirstNet Board of Directors and he played an important role in getting the network off the ground. Acting FirstNet Authority CEO Ed Parkinson wrote a tribute to Ed Reynolds and you can read more about his extraordinary life on a page dedicated to him on Dignity Memorial. I worked as a consultant for Ed when he was at BellSouth and then Cingular and Ed, along with Sam Guinn, introduced me when I gave a speech to Auburn Wireless Engineering students. The last time I saw Ed was last fall when he was honored by being inducted into the Wireless Hall of Fame. I spent a little time talking to him then and I have to say he will be missed by many. 

In addition to the two references to his life shared above, I want to include what was written about him when he was elected into the Wireless Hall of Fame:

“Ed Reynolds is a consummate technology leader whose career has ranged from re-engineering PBX systems, to deploying fiber optics, to implementing multiple wireless technologies. His skills moved him to the forefront of the wireless revolution as a leader in the transition from the original analog to increasingly advanced digital networks.

From his start as an Auburn University co-op student at South Central Bell, Ed earned his electrical engineering degree in 1970. He also holds an M.B.A. from the University of Alabama. Ed advanced through the AT&T organization, and joined BellSouth Mobility as regional vice president in 1989 to take up the challenges of the new wireless industry. His task was to build and operate wireless systems across five southern states, and he quickly recognized the potential for bringing cellular service to rural areas as well as metropolitan centers. He served as chief executive of a number of BellSouth wireless entities as the industry experienced explosive growth.

With the formation of Cingular Wireless, Ed became president of network operations and took on the critical role of chief network officer. With the Cingular acquisition of AT&T Wireless, he was a key member of the team as he led the integration of the two networks — successfully blending two large overlapping nationwide networks on time and budget. This was the largest merger in the history of the US wireless industry at the time. During the integration process, Ed also introduced a state-of-the-art 3G network overlay. His skill in navigating a host of difficult network problems helped position Cingular to land the Apple iPhone deal, another transformative episode in the industry’s history.

Ed is a former executive committee member of the North American GSM Alliance, the CTIA Executive Committee and Board, and the PCIA Board of Directors. He was named to the initial Board of Directors of FirstNet, and served from 2012 until February 2018 bringing extensive wireless and executive level experience to the undertaking of building and deploying the nationwide broadband network dedicated to first responders.

He has also served on the FCC Network Reliability and Interoperability Council, on the industry advisory board for Electrical and Computer Engineering at Auburn University, and on the Wireless Advisory Board and the Alumni Engineering Council at Auburn. He is a member of the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame.” 

I am also pleased that his induction into the Wireless Hall of Fame was prior to his passing. It is a real honor to be elevated to this organization and to me it is better done when a deserving person is still alive and able to enjoy the ceremony and congratulatory wishes of many of his friends and business associates. 

There are a number of public safety communications people who should be named to a hall of fame of some sort. The Radio Club of America honors wireless pioneers and thought leaders with a multiplicity of awards each year to people who have had an influence in many different aspects of wireless including cellular and beyond, and NPTSC honors a person each year with the DeMello award presented at the annual RCA banquet. I hope that over time the Wireless History Foundation will come to the realization that wireless is much more than cellular systems and devices. However, those who have been inducted into the Wireless Hall of Fame are all deserving and worthy of the honor. Ed Reynolds will stand tall among all of them!

This is starting out to be a busy and hopefully productive year for public safety communications. I have hopes that with changes in Congress we can advance the T-Band bill onto the floor and passed so we can remove the uncertainty existing T-Band users are facing. I have hopes that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has heard from public safety about the increased need for the 4.9-GHz band and will leave it licensed only to public safety entities. I also hope the rush to make use of the 6-GHz microwave band won’t cause interference to point-to-point microwave systems in place and being used for public safety, utilities, and many others. There has to be a better way to manage spectrum than to simply find another slice that can be auctioned to pay down some of the interest on the national debt. Other countries have come up with much better spectrum allocation plans and we should try to learn from them.

This promises to be an interesting year for public safety and other uses of wireless in the United States and around the world. Let’s hope those who make policy concerning the limited resource of our spectrum take the time to find out what is really needed, rather than what they can put up for auction.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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