Public Safety Advocate: A Tale of Three States

There is only one vetted and approved FirstNet public-safety broadband network and it was created as a private/public partnership by Congress. It is NOT a commercial broadband network even though it is being built by a commercial network provider (AT&T) after winning the contract. FirstNet is managed and run by The FirstNet Authority, an independent authority created by Congress and signed into law by the then President and placed under the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) within the Department of Commerce.

When it was created, the theory was states would “opt in” to FirstNet and then each individual public-safety agency within the state would choose whether to join FirstNet. As it turned out, all fifty states and all U.S. territories opted in. The other choice would have been to work with a commercial network vendor and build a FirstNet-compliant network exclusively for that state to be integrated into FirstNet. 

Prior to Congressional approval for FirstNet, the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), with representation from all the major public-safety organizations, the Mayors and Governors Association, and commercial wireless broadband network companies explored ways to build the nationwide public-safety broadband network. These discussions examined different approaches including a “network of networks” dividing the states into three or four segments with a different commercial operator building each segment and then joining them together.

At the end of the day, the choice was to establish a single nationwide public-safety broadband network. This decision was influenced by issues that had been prevalent in Land Mobile Radio (LMR) networks and ongoing changes to LTE. 

If multiple LTE network companies were involved, the public-safety community could not be assured that vendors would include the same set of options for each new upgrade and maintain LTE as a standard across networks. With more than a single FirstNet vendor, what assurances would there be that when an issue affecting network performance is detected there would not be a lot of finger-pointing among the companies, their own vendors, and others? Time has shown a single point of contact to be best for solving problems that might arise. This also applies to LMR.

Thus, development of the Nationwide Public-Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) began. At the time, it was to be built only on public-safety spectrum (Band 14). The license for this spectrum was issued to The FirstNet Authoritynot to a commercial network operator. The FCC first licensed 10 MHz (5X5) to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), a non-profit public-safety organization led by Ret. Chief Harlin McEwen. When Congress passed the bill creating FirstNet, the FCC issued the license for all 20 MHz (10X10) to The FirstNet Authority, again, not to any commercial broadband network.

When AT&T won the 25-year contract, use of this spectrum was assigned, not licensed, to AT&T for FirstNet. At that time, AT&T pledged to make all its LTE spectrum available to the public-safety community with the same priority and pre-emption required for Band-14 spectrum. It is important to understand that The FirstNet Authority holds the license to Band 14. It is not spectrum AT&T won at auction, which is how AT&T and all other wireless broadband vendors obtained their commercial spectrum. Shortly after the contract was awarded to AT&T resulting in “FirstNet (Built with AT&T),” AT&T also pledged to provide public-safety access with pre-emption and priority to all 5G spectrum as it is built out. 

I am recapping this history because the next section of this week’s Advocate is based on the above perspective, what is included in the bill authorizing FirstNet, and how FirstNet is actually controlled by The FirstNet Authority with AT&T having won a 25-year contract to build, upgrade, and maintain the public-safety broadband network known as FirstNet.

South Dakota

There have been three separate decisions over the last few weeks and some public-safety agencies are taking part in FirstNet while some are not. The first was reported recently in The Daily Republic, a newspaper published in Mitchell, Davison County, South Dakota. Mitchell is the seventh-largest city in South Dakota. 

The headline says, “Davison County will stay with its current wireless provider for a first responder specific network to communicate in emergency situations.” This is a result of all five Davison County Commissioners saying they prefer to stay with Verizon rather than move the County’s cell phones to FirstNet. And here is the first mistake in the article, “which is owned by AT&T.” The article goes on to say the decision was made following a presentation by a Verizon representative during the County’s regular meeting at the Davison County North Offices in Mitchell. 

It turns out the Sheriff of Davison County had introduced a plan to switch to FirstNet saying it would give his department increased communications options and would save the County some money on the front end. Later, he was quoted as saying he understood staying with Verizon after its presentation indicated it offered many of the same features as FirstNet. 

My first reaction is that I thought decisions that affect the public-safety community are generally made by those within the public-safety community. It is also strange that the five commissioners did not vote on remaining with Verizon but merely thought it might be the best thing to do. The Verizon presentation, at least as reported, stated Verizon, “offered many of the same services” as FirstNet. Yes, Verizon does claim to offer pre-emption and priority, and yes, it claims to be running a separate public-safety core. However, it does not provide some of the most important FirstNet public-safety-specific features including access to Band 14, the public-safety spectrum approved by law, FirstNet applications, FirstNet-approved devices that operate on Band 14, and data service interoperability between any and all agencies on FirstNet.

The article continues by quoting the Verizon representative as saying Verizon has invested millions of dollars in new sites including sites around Mitchell. I cannot get excited about this since all the networks are spending more money to build more sites and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is no different. In fact, FirstNet is spending more because while it is adding its commercial LTE bands, it is rolling out Band 14 as The FirstNet Authority contract requires. 

Later in the article, Verizon’s Griene is quoted as saying, “We’re offering all the same things that FirstNet is touting,” referencing the ability to pre-empt non-emergency network users, and the ability to integrate traditional emergency radios into its network.

Griene said it would take a few weeks to update the company’s phones and technology but otherwise, the services and new pricing could begin within days. Davison County will save $2.88 per month, according to documents provided during Tuesday’s meeting and will spend $1,083.18 per month.”

The final quote was from one of the Commissioners and remember, no vote was taken. His comment was, “Why change when it works?” The answer is easy. You change to make sure your public-safety personnel have the latest access to interoperability, devices, and applications and can manage their own devices within the FirstNet network.

It is interesting to note that both FirstNet (where Kodiak is one of four approved vendors) and Verizon use Kodiak Push-To-Talk (PTT), but each network runs its own version and the two are not compatible. Perhaps the most significant difference between FirstNet and other broadband networks is that FirstNet belongs to public safety and is overseen by The FirstNet Authority. It is NOT owned by AT&T. Verizon is a commercial network, not a public-safety network, and no one oversees how it operates its network when it comes to public-safety service.

While it sometimes uses AT&T’s LTE spectrum in addition to Band 14 public-safety spectrum, FirstNet has been assigned its own Subscriber Identity Module (SIM). Even before FirstNet was approved, many who worked to address issues decided it would be important to obtain a specific Public Land Mobile Network Identifier (PLMN-ID). A PLMN-ID was applied for and accepted prior to FirstNet approval. Public-safety users are differentiated from commercial users by this ID. 

Having a separate PLMN-ID and SIM card provides a decided advantage over commercial networks that identify different types of users with notations within their billing systems. A year or so ago, one commercial network saw that too much data was being used on its network in a specific area so it slowed the data speed and capped it. It was later determined that the data was being used by a fire department involved in a major wildland fire. Instant identification of public-safety users on a network is vital to assuring those who need pre-emption and priority are included. This special SIM is key to FirstNet.

New York

The State of New York has taken a different course of action. The state’s Office of General Services (OGS) authorized both Verizon and FirstNet service as contractors to provide services to all state agencies and public-safety entities. This addition to the state OGS contract will remain in force until September 2014.

This does not mean New York is making the decision for state or local public-safety agencies, it only means both are approved. For all the reasons stated above, FirstNet appears to be the logical choice. In a large state such as New York, having full interoperability between agencies, a key feature of FirstNet, should carry weight. You might remember that FirstNet came about because of communications issues cited during 9/11. It is important that in addition to agency systems within the state having FirstNet interoperability, those who share borders with New York should also take advantage of FirstNet interoperability. 

Verizon’s stance during the bidding process for the FirstNet network was to sit out the bidding for two reasons. First, Verizon stated it did not need the spectrum. Second, it also stated while it liked government customers on its network, it had no desire to partner with the federal government. Yet so far, the FirstNet public/private partnership has been one of the most successful joint ventures ever undertaken.

New Hampshire

Recently, Concord, New Hampshire celebrated advancements FirstNet has made in the state and this particular event was to unveil new FirstNet sites and the sixteen more to be added this year. 

This event included Governor Chris Sununu and others from the state government as well as many notables from The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T). 

The news article that appears on the FirstNet Authority Website states:

  • “Purpose-built network enhancements: 4 new cell sites – located in Pembroke, Stoddard, Rumney and North Hampton – have launched. These sites were constructed using Band 14 spectrum, as well as AT&T commercial spectrum. Band 14 is nationwide, high quality spectrum set aside by the government specifically for FirstNet. AT&T also deployed Band 14 in more than 100 towns across New Hampshire including Keene, Littleton, Manchester and Portsmouth.
  • Unparalleled emergency support: New Hampshire agencies on FirstNet also have 24/7 access to a nationwide fleet of 76 deployable network assets. These portable cell sites can either be deployed for planned events or in emergencies at no additional charge.
  • Public safety-specific advanced capabilities: FirstNet is the only nationwide platform that gives first responders always-on, 24-hours-a-day priority and preemption across voice and data. This is like giving public safety communications the “lights and sirens” treatment so that they stay connected, no matter the emergency.
  • Statewide network support: Using all AT&T LTE bands, FirstNet already covers over 99% of the U.S. population today. In addition to the FirstNet build, AT&T also launched 6 other new cell sites across the state this past year. All new sites and other network enhancements – as well as our preexisting cell sites – are further elevating coverage and communications for public safety and the communities they serve.”

This is an example of what happens when a state, The FirstNet Authority, and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) work together to make things happen. AT&T reported that between 2016 and 2018 it had invested $80 million in New Hampshire, and these new sites along with the sixteen planned show its continued dedication to putting FirstNet coverage where it is needed as quickly as possible.

Winding Down

There does not appear to be any “down time” within the public-safety communications community. IWCE is coming up, then the PSCR event in June in San Diego, and IAFC, APCO, IACP, and a number of local events. If you follow FirstNet on Google Alerts, you will receive an email every day that outlines many of the more interesting activities. Sometimes these include releases from companies investing in AT&T or other events that do not seem to fit, but most of the time they provide valid information on new tower builds, new application releases, new devices approved, and more. 

There also continues to be great coverage coming from Urgent CommunicationsMission Critical, and RCR Wireless. Other sources I read daily include Inside Tower Fire Chiefs Association, and IACP, IAFC and APCO news releases. Keeping up can be a challenge but I think it is probably easier for me than for those engaged in the daily workings of the public-safety community. To the best of my ability, I will continue to keep you updated as things change, which they do at what appears to be an ever-increasing pace.

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2020 Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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