Public Safety Advocate: 9/11, Rural Broadband, Datacast

Above all else, this week was the anniversary of the terrible tragedies of 9/11. For public safety, 9/11 was also the beginning of a nationwide effort to address a key shortcoming of public-safety communications. Those experienced with radio communications were well aware of the existing inability for responding agencies to communicate with each other long before 9/11, but because of the events of that day, all Americans learned about “interoperability.” Examples of interoperability issues were detailed in the 9/11 Commission Report released in 2004. The need for revamping the public-safety communications landscape to solve this problem was further amplified by the inability to coordinate among agencies during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

It is important to understand that first responders all across the United States have been facing this lack of interoperability for a long time. This is because public-safety spectrum was doled out piecemeal by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There were and remain so many people, organizations, and groups that need radio spectrum that it is not possible to simply give a swath of newly-opened spectrum to a specific group. For that reason, public safety Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems have been spread out over many different portions of the spectrum. Today you will find public-safety LMR systems on 30-50 MHz (low-band), 152-174 MHz (VHF), 450-470 MHz (UHF), 470-512 MHz (T-band), and finally the 700 and 800-MHz spectrum. 

Until recently, LMR radios were limited to transmitting on only one of these bands and it was not uncommon for law enforcement, for example, to be in the UHF portion and the fire department in the same city or area on VHF, which precluded their ability to communicate across disciplines. Further, fire and police departments in one city that request aid from neighboring areas might find that when the others arrive they are unable to communicate directly with each other. Many times, requests for information or service had to be relayed from one dispatch center to another, adding time and sometimes losing important pieces of information. 

It was not until February 2012 that the public-safety community convinced Congress, the FCC, and the Executive Branch to provide a swath of nationwide spectrum and some minimal funding for what has become FirstNet, which is perhaps the most successful of all public/private partnerships to date. Now in 2019, FirstNet serves thousands of public-safety users, its governing body, FirstNet the Authority, is preparing to provide additional funds to add capabilities, and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is far ahead of schedule. 

We are now well on our way to realizing the vision of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) for an operational Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). Though the need for NG911 funding and installation remains, these two networks, along with existing land mobile radio networks, will be the core of public-safety communications for a long time to come. 

Rural America

When I was working with the Public Safety Alliance, we were all aiming for a nationwide common system for public safety that would include data, video, and still pictures. Push-to-talk came later. We were not only focused on metro and suburban areas, we wanted to serve rural America as well. Most Congressional Representatives and Senators were also concerned about rural coverage since many of their districts included citizens in rural areas that, for the most part, did not even have Internet access let alone communications for public safety. One of my projects was to research districts of members of Congress who were sitting on the fence and provide information supporting our project.

I reviewed each district using numbers that were available from the federal government for total population and rural population, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) information concerning how many rural citizens actually had broadband service either as wireline DSL, fiber (not many), or wireless networks. Once I established a baseline, I was able to determine what types of companies might cover the rural areas. In most cases, in addition to rural telcos I found rural co-op power companies that might be in a position to provide services to these areas. These power companies belong to a membership-driven organization known as the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC). The NRTC works with rural power companies on communications and other issues and I instantly saw a match here. The power companies wanted fiber and wireless to help run their grids, they had many rights-of-ways with infrastructure already in place, and most had already deployed trucks and personnel. Further, they wanted to be able to resell wireless data services to their customers and modernize their meters by upgrading them using wireless technologies.   

When Congress passed the Middle-Class Tax Relief Bill of 2012 and it was signed into law, it included wording that requires the private partner to provide coverage in as much of rural America as feasible. All those who had put so much time and effort into creating FirstNet were pleased that this was included in the bill in Title VI, which is the section dealing with FirstNet, NG911, spectrum allocations, and funding for research into other public-safety needs.

During the early days of FirstNet, one board member was president of the NRTC and he shared its vision for power co-ops. He left the FirstNet board because, I am told, while he wanted to pursue a relationship between FirstNet and rural co-ops, he did not want the appearance of a potential conflict of interest. I was pleased but amazed to find that only last week both the NTIA and the FCC spoke up about authorizing electric co-ops to take part in wireless communications in areas they serve. Hopefully, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will now be able to work with these co-ops as it has with rural wireless carriers to enable use of public-safety Band 14 and more of AT&T’s spectrum if the details can be worked out. This will not only provide better coverage for first responders, since the law states Band 14 may be used for commercial purposes when not needed by first responders, it could provide broadband access for power companies and their customers. 

Below is an example of a report I provided to members Congress. This report was completed in the summer of 2011 and covers the entire state of Kentucky.

Senator: Mitch McConnell
State Statistics:
Total Population:      4,314,113 (2009 est.)
Broadband Usage (NTIA 2007 statistics) 
Total Households                       1,749,000
Total with Internet Access           960,000         54.86%
Total with Dial-up Access             253,000         14.44%
Total with Broadband Access      700,000         40.02%
Total with Anywhere Access     1,166,000         66.67%  

According to ITU Report (entire United States):
Internet users in 2010             239,893,600       77.3%              
Broadband users                        85,287,100

Conclusions 

In Kentucky, 253,000 households have only slow-speed dial-up access available; 1,049,000 households have no access to broadband services.

Broadband for Kentucky

Recent stimulus funds made available by NTIA and the Rural Utility Service (IUS) did not materially increase the broadband penetration rate in Kentucky. 

What is needed in order to provide broadband access to most of the citizens of Kentucky are private/public partnerships. Commercial wired and wireless operators do not build facilities where the population per square mile is low. There is no return on investment for these companies to cover these rural areas in any state. 

Coverage of most of the population of Kentucky CAN be provided if there are public/private partnerships. 

IF the 700-MHz D block is re-allocated to public safety THEN there will be sufficient spectrum to permit private/public partnerships in the rural areas of Kentucky and broadband services can be made available.

A Workable Business Model

One business model that has been proposed for other states where the rural population does not have access to broadband services is as follows:

  1. The public-safety governance organization (the license holder), or the State of Kentucky, enters into a public/private partnership with interested parties to build out the 700-MHz public-safety broadband network in the district. 
  2. The private companies involved could include private telecommunications companies, local power utilities, health care and educational organizations.
  3. The private companies would help fund the cost of the network build-out with the balance of the funds coming from federal funding as proposed in Senate Bill 911 which was passed by committee 24/4 (a bipartisan vote), and which is now ready to be introduced in the full Senate.  
  4. The private companies would also contribute rights-of-way, existing telecommunications and powerline towers, backhaul, and right-of-way access, thus making the build-out of this shared wireless broadband system more attractive and feasible for both the private and public entities. 
  5. The network would then be available, on a secondary basis as follows:
    1. Power companies would use the network to meet their SmartGrid needs.
      1. They could then resell broadband services to their rural customers for Internet access.
    1. Telecommunications companies would also be able to make use of and resell wireless broadband services to their customers.
    1. Health care and educational organizations would be able to make use of the network for their own use at favorable broadband rates.
  6. The ongoing cost of operating the network would be funded by a combination of the private and public safety entities that would make use of the network.

One set of potential private partners is listed below. Many of these companies are non-profit co-ops and are members of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative. Many of them are power companies and the NRTC, on behalf of its members, has expressed an interest in working with public safety in the type of public/private partnerships described above:

Blue Grass Energy Cooperative Corporation
Clark Energy Cooperative, Inc.
Cumberland Valley Electric
East Kentucky Power Cooperative
Farmers Rural Electric Cooperative
Foothills Rural Telephone Cooperative Corporation
Fox Creek R.E.C.C.
Gearheart Communications / dba Inter Mountain Cable, Inc.
Grayson Rural Electric Cooperative Corp
Green River Electric Corporation
Harrison County R.E.C.C.
Henderson Union RECC
Hickman-Fulton Counties Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation
Inter-County Energy Cooperative
Jackson Energy Cooperative
Jackson Purchase Energy
Kenergy
Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives
Licking Valley Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation
Logan Telephone Cooperative
Meade County Rural Electric Cooperative
Nolin Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation
Owen Electric Cooperative, Inc.
Pennyrile Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation
Salt River Electric Cooperative Corporation
Shelby Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation
South Central Rural Telephone Co.
South Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation
SouthEast Telephone, Inc.
Taylor County Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation
Three Oaks Marketing and Development
Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation
West Kentucky RECC
West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications Cooperative


Such a private/public partnership would provide almost 100% of the population of Kentucky with access to broadband services for their businesses, homes, schools, and other locations where broadband services are currently not available today. Public safety would have full use of the network during major disasters but at all other times the network would be shared by all of the contributing parties.

This type of program will provide the State of Kentucky, and other states, with broadband services to their rural populations at affordable prices AND will provide broadband services in these areas faster than any plan that has, so far, been presented by the federal or state governments.

End of Document

Datacasting

NOTE: I am not in any way involved in this project, service, or its success. I have been following this technology with interest for several years and firmly believe it could be a valuable tool for public safety. Enhancements to the network now support a simple chip that could be embedded into public-safety devices to enable reception of this video feed.

Several times over the past year or so I have used the old adage of a stool with three legs for public-safety communications. Each leg is essential to the success of public safety. The first is LMR, which is established and in use. Next is FirstNet (Built with AT&T), which augments LMR and provides fully-interoperable voice, data, and video capabilities, and finally, Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911). This leg of the stool is important since NG911 enables citizens reporting incidents to include more than voice. They can send data, pictures, and videos to the emergency communications center where they will be processed and forwarded to first responders to provide additional information about an incident and its severity. 

This week I am suggesting a fourth leg for this stool representing a relatively new broadband technology that is being developed and has already been deployed in some states. Recently, the technology used to broadband these “side channels” over existing Public Safety Broadcast TV stations have been upgraded and now support a chip that can and should be included in devices used by the public-safety community. Most of the pieces for providing “datacasting” are in place. Missing is the addition of a chip that would be embedded in devices used by the public-safety community. Datacasting is carried by Public Broadcasting TV stations that have signed an agreement with SpectraRep, the company that developed the technology and is serving as the intermediary between the PBS network and the public-safety community. PBS has committed to providing these services to all fifty states and six territories and projects is it will cover about 97-percent of the population. 

An online video further explains this technology (DHS S&T)  https://www.dhs.gov/publication/st-datacasting-fact-sheetand an APCO video https://foxbaltimore.com/news/local/atsc-30-technology-is-the-next-generation-of-television-broadcasting provides information about the latest developments. There is more information on datacasting on the SpectraRep website and PBS TV provides coverage maps of its TV network. PBS towers are often used by public-safety agencies for their radio systems so they are already tenants on the PBS system. The Americas Public Television Stations (APTS) is the entity driving conversations with the PBS TV stations. This is important because APTS speaks with a single voice for all of the PBS stations that have agreed to take part in this project. 

While FirstNet has provided an enormous amount of LTE spectrum and has an exclusive license for Band 14 public-safety spectrum, use of datacasting could provide a new tool that would reduce the amount of video traffic on FirstNet. In addition to video, SpectraRep can deliver alerts and files such as floor plans, essentially turning the TV signal into a secure one-to-many push network where any digital content can be delivered. In addition to video, SpectraRep can deliver alerts and files such as floor plans, essentially turning the TV signal into a secure one-to-many push network where any digital content can be delivered. One use I see for this type of datacasting is to provide video to other jurisdictions. For example, if a department comes across a bomb its bomb squad is not familiar with, datacasting could send an image of the device to other bomb squads around the country and, hopefully, some other department might have vital information to share. There are many other uses for the technology and I would like to see datacasting included in the future suite of public-safety communications technologies that are advancing the type and depth of knowledge provided to public-safety responders, Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs), and others who need information in a timely manner.

Winding Down

Things continue to be interesting in the public-safety communications arena. FirstNet is making major advancements in Band 14 and other LTE coverage and Assured Wireless’s device that provides higher power on Band 14 is about ready to be introduced into the public-safety community. I will be covering this device in next week’s Advocate. I believe this device introduces an important new way of increasing coverage not only in rural areas but in areas where coverage is an issue due to terrain, or on Tribal lands that are vast and there is a scarcity of resources to provide solid FirstNet coverage. 

September is upon us and soon fall conferences from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and others will take place. I always look forward to the IACP event because on the Sunday of the conference, the Communications and Information Committee hosts a meeting that is always well-attended and chock full of discussions and valuable presentations designed to keep members up-to-date with activities in public-safety communications.

FirstNet has been busy chasing after Hurricane Dorian to make sure it can provide public safety with all the services needed during and after the storm. Dorian was more of a challenge because predictions for a direct hit kept changing the logistics. I have visions of Cells On Wheels (COWs), repair crews, and other personnel madly scrambling up the east coast from Miami northward. While it is too early for accurate outage reports, I have not heard of anything major. FirstNet and its quick response to restore the network where there were outages provides an added benefit to its commercial customers as well as public safety. 

I still have a lot to review including the car kit from GPS lockbox for my Sonim XP8 phone, and several other devices that should arrive at the office soon. Meanwhile, as I continue my drive tests, I am finding more and more Band 14 sites up and active in the greater Phoenix area. According to FirstNet (Built with AT&T) folks, they are mounting an aggressive build-out not only in the Phoenix area but across the state. Arizona is not the only state benefiting from these build-outs; hardly a day goes by when my Google Alert for FirstNet does not pop up with an item about additional funding to enhance coverage in many other cities and states.

It will be interesting to see the first investments from the FirstNet Authority. While I shared its roadmap and domains for investment, I have not yet seen any information about when the first funding cycle will occur. I am looking forward to seeing more specifics about where the money goes.

Until Next Week

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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