FirstNet was created in 2012 and in early 2017, the FirstNet Authority awarded a contract to AT&T to build, maintain, and manage what was to become the first and only nationwide public safety broadband network.
Sine the contract was awarded, a huge amount of progress has been made in building out this robust network, enticing vendors to build equipment to operate on it, and developing new applications for use on the network.
Both FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and the FirstNet Authority deserve a lot of credit for keeping their eyes on the ball and, for the most part, the goals set for the network have been realized. In no way does that indicate work on developing FirstNet is over. AT&T is already opening up its 5G spectrum for first responders and, along the way, it is also adding new deployables, enhancing its network, and hardening it in many places. While all this FirstNet activity is great and has had a huge impact on the millions of public safety professionals using the network, it still falls short in several areas.
During the initial days, the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), and other organizations including APCO and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) as well as vendors and other state, local, and federal personnel and organizations had many discussions about how a network for public safety should be built and what it should provide. After many meetings and discussions, the decision was to seek a single nationwide broadband network with priority and preemption, and full interoperability for the public safety community.
Everyone worked toward this goal and while it took many years, the spectrum and some money were allocated in 2012. It took the FirstNet Authority another five years to award a contract to build, maintain, and operate this one-of-a-kind, Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN).
Even though a number of years had passed since the initial discussions, the vision remained unchanged. It incorporates nationwide broadband wireless coverage for as much of the United States as is practical, including many rural areas that were not even covered by the standard Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems already being used by public safety.
Here the “assumption” was what people thought would result from building this network. It did not dawn on many of these people that there is more to FirstNet (Built with AT&T) than simply building a top-notch nationwide network.
It was assumed that this network would provide nationwide interoperability to any and all first responders using the system. (LMR systems come with PTT as part of the radio while FirstNet uses PTT applications. This has created confusion between the public safety and commercial broadband communities.) The perception was that all the different types of communications that would pass over the FirstNet network would be fully interoperable with every other type on the system. This expectation came from the basic reason to build FirstNet, which was to provide interoperable communications to all public safety agencies operating on the network. This expectation came from the basic reason to build FirstNet, which was to provide interoperable communications to all public safety agencies operating on the network.
The pressure to make this all happen was prompted by past incidents that we are all aware of starting with the Oklahoma bombing and punctuated by the lack of interoperability in many disasters including the incident that received the most attention: September 11, 2001 (9/11).
Perhaps this was a case of “If we build it, they will come,” not being fully aware that they will come with so many different technologies and standards.
Early on, several organizations understood that the first order of business for this network should be to develop nationwide fully interoperable Push-To-Talk (PTT). This group, driven by the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) division of NIST, set out to make sure push-to-talk across FirstNet would be the first interoperable form of communications on the network (other than text and dial-up phone service).
Unfortunately, the 3GPP standards body, which had been tasked with developing a single push-to-talk standard for all public safety broadband systems around the world, took much more time than anticipated. Even when the specification was finished, it took several vendors even longer to embed the standard in their FirstNet-Certified devices.
By the time the 3GPP standard, “Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT), was released, other vendors already had broadband PTT products on the market and a number of them were certified for use on the FirstNet network. All of this created the situation we are in today.
Where We Are Today
The 3GPP standard is available not only on FirstNet but on several other broadband networks. There are some devices that are capable of the standard, mostly Android devices, and one device on the Apple operating system (iOS). Some within both the public safety and vendor communities believe that over time this standard will, in fact, become the primary standard. Others of us believe vendors already serving the majority of PTT users over FirstNet could just as easily become part of a new, perhaps different type of PTT for nationwide communications.
What Is Needed
I have written several times about what I believe a fully interoperable nationwide push-to-talk system over FirstNet should include. I call this configuration “Unified Push-To-Talk.” I believe the key elements making up a PTT system will enable every first responder on FirstNet and their existing LMR systems to communicate with each other. If we can reach this point quickly and easily, FirstNet will become the PTT platform for first responder interoperability while the LMR systems will continue to provide more localized services within specific geographic areas served by the various agencies.
Perhaps what has been missed is that in the LMR world, no one calls PTT an application as it is part of the feature set on every public safety LMR device, and because of how digital LMR systems were introduced over time with the different flavors of PTT adopted by the public safety community. Public safety has also continued to use analog FM PTT channels and other push-to-talk channels on newer LMR systems to provide LMR PTT interoperability. The goal then is to marry a common PTT system over FirstNet with its ability to interface in various ways with existing LMR PTT services.
Today we have 3GPP standard PTT available over FirstNet and a number of FirstNet-Certified PTT applications have been proved on FirstNet almost since day one. The only group that follows how many PTT users are already on FirstNet are vendors that have sold their applications to the first responder community. It is doubtful that we could gather this data on a network-wide basis to help determine how we should move forward.
In addition to FirstNet-Certified PTT services, other vendors planned to enter the broadband PTT market or have found a different way to provide nationwide push-to-talk. Still other PTT services have never been certified but are being used over FirstNet. In some cases, these services that have not been certified do not have the type of data encryption that is needed on this network.
Now we find ourselves in a situation where a number of vendors are already making money on PTT applications on FirstNet; the 3GPP standard is slowly making its way into the public safety community; and many existing flavors of PTT have already been integrated both over FirstNet and with LMR systems. This is true of local, statewide, and federal systems today.
With so many different applications for PTT over broadband, some requiring the core of the PTT application to reside within the network and some that can operate with a remote core or, if desired, as part of the network. This creates issues with interoperability not only between agencies on FirstNet, but also for agencies that today operate their broadband systems on other networks. Further, there is no absolute requirement in the law that would require every public safety organization to join FirstNet. While FirstNet’s user numbers continue to grow, there are and will continue to be agencies or departments that choose a different route.
In addition to all of this, there are at least two new entrants into the nationwide public safety PTT discussion. One was a white label distributor for a PTT vendor already serving a large number of local, state, and federal agencies that has decided to change its course and develop yet another PTT application. (I am told many of its customers are not thrilled with the idea of losing support for their existing, working PTT systems).
The problem for first responders is how and when they will be able to communicate across FirstNet to any other public safety entity or professional. So far, to my thinking, what is on the table is not the correct approach. The two glaring issues here are how to technically permit full interoperability across FirstNet and LMR systems, and how to compensate existing PTT vendors that might not be included in an interoperability system.
One solution that has been circulating is to use a major cloud-based system to integrate multiple PTT applications. I have concerns about this methodology and one cloud vendor charging its competitors for PTT in the cloud and even if the cloud can actually enable interoperability. Finally, I am concerned that clouds are not always available. Today, they are assumed to be up and running on a 5/9 basis and common knowledge is that this has never been and never will be a goal we can reach.
This is a multipart problem that needs to be solved. It involves many different vendors with many different flavors of PTT, all of which vendors have an investment in and are selling for use over FirstNet. Then there is the “all we have to do is wait for the 3G PP standard to be fully operational” crowd PTT Over Cellular. I don’t believe this for a minute.
Currently, PTT over Cellular “Incident Command on Demand” interoperability users on one solution cannot communicate with PTToC users on a second solution without preconfigured gateways. BK Technologiesrecently announced InteropONE, its interoperability solution.
This product is cloud-based and built around three users: Standard, Primary, and Guest users.
InteropONE supports interoperability with an LMR system using donor LMR radios and Radio over IP (RoIP) gateways securely connected to the InteropONE system using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). For more detailed information go to https://www.interopone.com/
It is no one’s fault that we have arrived at this juncture. Those that believed a worldwide standard would be best started out thinking in the right direction. However, because the standard was so late, many other options have become available and some of them are equal to or outperforming the intended standard PTT application.
For a number of years, I have tried to convince those involved in providing broadband interoperability to public safety personnel that solving the PTT problem was an absolute priority.
While the vendor community continues with multiple PTT applications and multiple ways of integrating them with LMR systems, the first responder community is not being served as it was envisioned they would.
While communications among and between various public safety agencies has improved, as can be witnessed by the latest hurricane responses, the system still does not provide the necessary level of interoperability or unified push-to-talk communications. This issue could become worse if a major vendor working with or without a broadband network company decides to bully its way into the PTT market by solving this problem. What needs resolution at this time are cost, integration, and miscellaneous concerns.
Viable solutions and the technologies are available, but there is still no indication that solutions will be quickly and easily resolved and the promise made to public safety, which is to provide interoperable nationwide public safety broadband services, can be fulfilled.
I apologize to my readers for the inconsistency of publication of Public Safety Advocates over last few months. Without going into detail, there have been some rough spots along the way and perhaps more to come. However, I have been publishing the Advocate since June 2010 and I intend to continue doing so, hopefully on a more regular basis. Thanks to all who have noticed the absence and asked about it.
Meanwhile, we are putting together some more Advocates we think will be timely and informative. One has to do with the status of the billions of dollars allocated for rural broadband services and if the funds are finding their way to the right people and companies to provide what everyone is expecting: a true rural broadband access system of networks. Students and everyone else without broadband services today will be able to join those of us who have been using broadband for years now. I, for one, believe installing true, reliable broadband will entice companies large and small to move to more rural areas where they will find a workforce waiting and Internet with speeds equal to speeds they now have in more populated areas.
In some cases, expansion of broadband into areas where it has not been available will entice new ventures, new homes, and more growth in rural areas. Broadband has become essential to our way of life and access is needed everywhere, not only for the public safety community but also for all citizens who do not have access.
I hope public safety and other vendors working on true broadband deployment will find ways to partner, share, and perhaps expand the footprint they had originally planned. FirstNet is a perfect example of a private/public partnership—perhaps the largest in the world. It is clear that this model is an advantage to everyone, so I hope when you plan your rural broadband rollouts you will consider partnerships.
Andrew M. Seybold, Sr.
©2002, Andrew Seybold, Inc.