There is no doubt 2020 will go down in history as one of the most difficult years the United States and the rest of the world has faced. However, we made it and the Covid-19 vaccine is on its way for our medical personnel, first responders, and other essential workers. We have been severely challenged on many fronts, and while we lost far too many people, most of us have made it through this tough year. Even so, it will be well into 2021 before we can breathe a sigh of relief.
It has been an especially tough year for our first responders and I have often wondered how much worse it would have been had it not been for the addition of public-safety broadband wireless communications, especially FirstNet. Many agencies have been called on to help other agencies, and mutual aid became more effective and efficient because a common broadband system enabled all the various agencies to share radio traffic, data, and much more. Prior to FirstNet/broadband services, incidents had to be coordinated without broadband, priority, and pre-emption.
The Oklahoma Bombing in 1995, 9/11 Terrorist Attacks, 2005 Hurricane Katrina, and 2011 4.5-magnitude earthquake in Northern Virginia that resulted in cellular network overloads in the DC area, drove recognition of the need for a nationwide broadband public-safety network. Then, after the creation of FirstNet in 2012, Hurricane Sandy left much of the east coast without communications, reinforcing public safety’s need for a nationwide broadband system and the need for Congress to act.
This time around, major incidents were clustered within 2020. FirstNet and all wired and wireless broadband networks were put to the ultimate test: Could they continue to provide services under increased loading that resulted from a multiplicity of incidents during the ongoing pandemic? I strongly believe interoperable communications made possible by FirstNet/broadband enabled our first-responder and medical communities to more effectively coordinate responses to this mixture of incidents and the pandemic.
Before I present stats for the year, I will cite one example. In March, New York City’s 9-1-1 system was overloaded and with the assistance of FEMA, ambulances, paramedics, and EMTs by the hundreds were sent to assist New York agencies. Upon arrival, ambulances and their crews either had LTE PTT capabilities or were equipped with devices to access FirstNet (Built with AT&T) so they could be dispatched to where they were needed most, tracked, and in short order, become part of the response efforts in the City.
This was quite an improvement over the 2001 World Trade Center incident in which local, state, and national agencies descended on New York City and many communications and interoperability issues made their tasks more dangerous and time-consuming. Even the local cell sites were down.
2020 FirstNet Stats
The first 2020 status report for FirstNet (Built with AT&T) I found was published in February 2020 and it indicated there were 1.2 million subscribers on the network from 11,000 public-safety organizations. FirstNet covered 2.61 million square miles, which means in 2019 it added 120,000 square miles, had 76 deployable assets, and Band 14 (public-safety LTE band) buildout was 75-percent complete serving more than 700 markets.
Many who regularly follow FirstNet and wired and wireless broadband voiced concerns about network capacity as the pandemic flourished and more schools and businesses established programs for students and employees to work from home.
FirstNet and all the other networks withstood what was thrown at them, and there was a growth spurt from February 2020 to the next report, which was released at the end of October 2020. The number of connections had risen to more than 1.7 million, representing more than 14,000 agencies, which means almost a million new connections were added in only fourteen months. Some of this growth has been attributed to FirstNet being the only broadband network that has 20 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum (Band 14) that is always there for first responders. This spectrum can be shared with commercial customers on a secondary basis, but if the need arises, it can be quickly and efficiently reserved for only FirstNet users. I consider Band 14 to be a failsafe amount of spectrum dedicated primarily to the public-safety community.
In late November, Band 14 coverage was up to 80-percent of the five-year build-out requirement. The number of deployables had grown to more than 76 and the approved FirstNet device list had grown to more than 150 including smartphones, tablets, vehicle routers, mobile radios, and other devices. At least two High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) devices were introduced for use on Band 14 only, and more than 150 FirstNet applications were listed in the FirstNet App Catalog.
I have not been able to find the number of times deployables have been used, but 2019 stats show they were sent out to provide coverage more than 450 times before the beginning of the horrific 2020 year. I am betting the final number for 2020 will far exceed that. You might recall that when the Navy deployed two of its hospital ships, both were covered by a FirstNet deployable, and during wildland fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and even political events, FirstNet deployables provided needed coverage and/or additional capacity.
Beyond the Virus
In 2020, there were thirty named storms and thirteen of these developed into hurricanes, more than in any year since 2005. More than 1,012 tornadoes were confirmed, six were rated EF4, and a total of 873 tornadoes touched down, killing 78 U.S. citizens. Perhaps the most disturbing statistic is that so far in 2020, we have recorded 52,113 wildfires that have burned 8,889,297 acres, about 2.3 million more than the ten-year average and double the acreage burned in the 2019 season (according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)).
In other words, 2020 has been the worst year with more disasters than most of us have seen in a single year. It is hoped the Covid-19 vaccine will help us return to normal as far as schools, work, and the economy are concerned. However, I think we are probably in for a few more years of too many disasters occurring in too many places, and often all at once. This year we had wildland fires at the same time as hurricanes and tornadoes as the virus worsened by the week. It speaks volumes that our first responders, medical staff, and other essential workers continued to do what they had to do while worrying about the virus as they responded to these and other emergencies. As 2020 draws to a close, I believe both The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) deserve high marks for the year. Speaking of grades, below you will see my list of issues from this time last year and what I thought we might be able to accomplish in 2020, as well as my grade for each item and my hopes for 2021.
Last year’s list was divided into “Musts,” “High Level of Importance,” and “Nice to See.” This week I will focus on grading “Musts” and catch up with the other two categories in a few weeks.
- Congress must repeal the T-band giveback. Waiting any longer is not fair to those who use T-band channels every day to provide public-safety communications for their communities.
- This has not happened, and unless there is movement between now and December 31, 2020, I have to give Congress the following grades:
- House of Representatives: A, passed the repeal the T-Band bill
- Senate: F, let one Senator stop passage of the bill even though two cities in his state will be directly impacted if the T-Band giveback is not repealed.
- A law must be passed to upgrade Emergency Communications Center (ECC) personnel to public safety status. This is vitally important as those serving in these positions need and deserve this recognition.
- The FCC must clear some of the issues currently before it including the following
- Leaving the 4.9-GHz band for public safety use exclusively, no sharing.
- Protecting the 6-GHz microwave band by denying unlicensed use. It is questionable whether a nationwide database will protect all mission-critical microwave already in the band.
- Issue Rulings: That the FirstNet network will remain as it is today—a single, nationwide network as was intended by Congress.
- There is no grade to be handed out for this. The FirstNet Authority remains an independent authority as it should.
- Permitting other commercial for-profit networks to interoperate with FirstNet is not in the best interests of public safety.
- FCC: F, there is an active set of comments on this issue at the FCC but no action has been taken. I am hopeful the new FCC will respect the fact that public safety and Congress voted for a single, nationwide public-safety broadband network.
- Congress must fund the nationwide rollout of Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911).
- I am told there is some positive activity in this area within Congress so I will not assign a grade this year. Instead, I will wait for a positive vote on funding NG911 in Congress. The move to broadband, which is part of NG911, is needed to provide better data to our first responders as they report to incidents.
- Land Mobile Radio (LMR)-to FirstNet Push-To-Talk (PTT) interfaces must be made simpler and less expensive to deploy, and
- All approved push-to-talk vendors on FirstNet must be required to provide interoperability with all other approved push-to-talk FirstNet vendors.
- Grade: C, because work is in progress. However, having too many different organizations is slowing progress.
- Grade: D, for full interoperability at this point. Too many groups are involved, and too many seem to simply be waiting for 3GPP standards to be fully realized instead of moving ahead with a solution.
- In addition, I would like to see FirstNet agree to use over-the-top PTT applications that provide network interoperability without requiring commercial networks to be fully integrated with FirstNet.
- FirstNet (Built with AT&T) must continue to build out the network and Band 14 ahead of schedule.
- FirstNet (Built with AT&T): A, continues to beat goals for first sixty months of the FirstNet contract. I expect 100-percent of the goals to be met well before the end of the 60-month build-out period.
I believe one reason we were all able to make it to the end of this year is that we have a nationwide broadband network reserved for and dedicated to our first-responder community and time after time this year, this network has proven itself.
There is more to be done and to be added to the network including new devices and applications, 5G technologies, more sites, more indoor coverage, and more deployables. Looking back over the year, it is difficult to believe even with all the issues that have faced us because of the virus, FirstNet has continued to expand, it has proven itself over and over again, and I believe it has made a huge difference in the level of communications interoperability it provides.
I hope at this time next year I can go over the above list once more and award “A”s and even “A+”s for tasks that still need to be completed in a timely manner, and I am looking forward to a new FCC that understands for citizens to be able to communicate, send messages, watch videos, and more, those who provide critical communications must have the spectrum and technology resources they need to be able to provide the rest of us with the best possible communications experiences. Spectrum is not about spectrum auctions for $billions, it is about spectrum being a limited resource and there is more demand for it than there is spectrum. If we do not soon become better stewards of our spectrum, it will begin to be degraded to the point of no return.
Please note that this issue of the Advocate is the last one that will be published in 2020. The next issue will be posted on January 7, 2021, a year I hope will be so much better for all of us. In the meantime, Happy Holidays and a wonderful New Year to all!
See you in 2021!
Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.