Public Safety Advocate: APCO and FirstNet

The busiest booth at the APCO conference in Las Vegas was by far the FirstNet booth. There was plenty of great activity on the show floor, but the exhibit area was smaller than in previous years simply because APCO has changed over the 30-plus years I have been a member. It is now much more of a dispatch/PSAP-focused organization. To be sure, those who run and work in Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) and dispatch centers are vital to the world of public safety, but APCO’s roots were broadly based on communications in the field, from the dispatch center out.

Both the exhibit floor and the comments I heard while walking it reflect this change. Yes, Motorola, Harris, JVCKenwood/EFJohnson, and Icom were still there with their booths and products but many of the Land Mobile Radio (LMR) vendor companies are no longer showing their wares at APCO. FirstNet and companies that are FirstNet partners were there in place of these vendors. In the FirstNet booth there were demonstrations from Sonim, Sierra Wireless, Cradlepoint, ESChat, RapidDeploy, and more. Time and time again those who were exhibiting told me they did not think anyone walking the floor had purchase decision-making authority.

Unlike in the past, there were only a few tower, antenna, and LMR-associated companies. Several times I was asked why the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), the 911 organization, and APCO don’t simply merge and be done with it. APCO has changed and if it was not for FirstNet as a major sponsor, I am not sure the show could survive. The focus of APCO is now more dispatch and PSAP-oriented but I was not blown away by Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) vendors on the show floor either. NG911 is the next big thing to happen to public safety communications after FirstNet. In reality, the two should have been planned and executed together since both NG911 and FirstNet are based on broadband technologies. However, the feds only saw fit to dribble out a little funding to NG911 and many of the states are still skimming 911 revenue off for their own, non-911 use.

FirstNet Conversations

While at APCO I had the opportunity to share some of my observations about FirstNet progress and in some cases, lack of progress with several FirstNet (AT&T) top executives. They were aware of most of the issues I raised but, in some cases, they are hamstrung by the larger AT&T corporate environment. I did discuss coverage issues and came away with a better understanding of precisely how fast AT&T is trying to improve its coverage, deploy Band 14, and close holes in coverage. The primary issue facing public safety today is its need for accurate coverage information from FirstNet as opposed to merely plots on a map, which they already know not to be realistic.

As I mentioned in a previous Public Safety Advocate (PSA), some AT&T sales staff tend to over-promise coverage or claim it is better than it really is. In the 1970s I was working for the large LMR companies and then owned my own 2-way radio shop. Before calling on a public safety account, I prepared by reviewing their existing coverage by drive-testing it. By the time I went to visit them, I was aware of many of the coverage issues in their area and had some ideas about how to fill in the coverage gaps. Today when I am asked to drive-test a department’s territory, I have my Sierra Wireless MG-90 with both FirstNet and Verizon SIM cards installed in them and my three LMR radios so I can listen to their LMR system while drive-testing the broadband system. This provides a much better way to identify coverage issues FirstNet may or may not have.

Other comments were questioning why FirstNet is not announcing which public safety departments have joined and I was told that this is an area where FirstNet bumps into corporate policy against naming customers. However, they (FirstNet) should be able to solve the problem soon. They also discussed why the app store applications list is not available until and unless you join FirstNet. It was agreed by all that providing a list of the applications, rather than access to them, prior to joining FirstNet would be a better idea. Other topics were discussed as well and I found the folks I was talking with both thankful for the input and as frustrated as many of us about things over which they have no control. The bottom line is that it takes time to work out the kinks but FirstNet management truly understands the issues and what needs to be done, what needs to be changed, and what is holding back some agencies from joining FirstNet.

I attended a number of the sessions and found them informative. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) update is one I try to never miss. This session was good and chock full of updates in a limited amount of time. Unfortunately, the FCC speaker was only given half the allotted time while the rest of the time he was questioned by the APCO councilor and the audience. I would have preferred more of the speaker’s time to be devoted to the issues he was discussing and not having to stop and answer questions another person thought were relevant or showed how smart he/she was in asking them. The FCC’s Department of Homeland Security and Land Mobile Radio bureau is one of the shining stars at the FCC. So far, I disagree with 99% of what the commissioners are doing when it comes to communications issues, but this bureau sticks to areas that are important to public safety.

The 4.9-GHz band was one of several topics and I had an opportunity to talk with the FCC speaker after the session. I mentioned my article on video surveillance and that I thought the 4.9-GHz band was the right place for this type of fixed video usage. However, since the FCC is considering making changes to the spectrum, many agencies are holding back making use of 4.9-GHz because they don’t want to become reliant on a band that might change dramatically depending on the FCC’s upcoming rulemaking. I was encouraged to file comments regarding this type of use and I will be doing so next week. In the meantime, I met with General Dynamics, which is helping solve the fixed surveillance issue by making use of private networks or even private networks embedded into a commercial network’s spectrum. We also discussed some very good (the company claims) video compression software that can help minimize the size of High-Definition streams of data.

Friends and the PWF

During the conference, I was able to chat with many of my longtime friends and business associates, and had some interesting discussions with a number of our readers I met about their interests and concerns. I encouraged them and I encourage all of you to send emails with issues you would like to have me address. I may not have all the answers, but I can certainly relay the message to others who might enlighten us. If an item of interest jumps out at me, it may end up as a topic in one of my posts. Some weeks it’s a challenge to come up with a topic for the Public Safety Advocate I think will appeal to or be of interest to readers so having some fresh ideas on the back-burner would be great!

Some of you may be familiar with a long-time Yahoo Group known as the Private Wireless Forum (PWF). This group was started and hosted by Nick Ruark who owns and operates a two-way radio shop (or shops) in Oregon. There are others who help manage the site as well. We used to gather at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) each year in Las Vegas but we did not connect in Orlando. Mel Samples, a contractor I use and have worked with on and off since the 1970s, came up with the idea of a PWF dinner on Sunday night at APCO this year. I picked up the thread and put an invite out on the PWF making it clear that this was a bring your own money drinks and dinner event. We ended up with nine people and had a wonderful time reminiscing about land mobile radio experiences, how much APCO has changed over the years, and how we would like to invite some of the younger communications crowd to join PWF. I have to tell you from experience that no matter what issue I have encountered with a radio or a radio system someone in the PWF has had the same issue and puts forth a way to solve the problem. So, I hope more people will join us. The topics are non-commercial in nature, and all are welcome. It is a moderated group since over the years we have had a few kooks show up and spout off about unrelated issues, but it is a good, solid group of very smart, mostly land mobile radio types with years and years of experience under their belts. Join us online!

Winding Down

I do still enjoy APCO and, of course, FirstNet is in my blood. However, I miss the days of generators, towers, and the other aspects of LMR communications vendors. I wish APCO would remember its roots and understand, once again, that while dispatch and PSAPs are vital to the success of the mission, if there are no radio channels or FirstNet networks they cannot do what they do so well—They make sure the public has full wireless access and then roll in the proper equipment to solve any problem. APCO started out at the Associated Public Safety Communications Officers Association but has morphed into an organization that appears to view radio communications as a given today. Yet in the past, APCO led the way, including an early broadband committee of which I was chosen to be vice-chair and which contributed much to what is now FirstNet, and worked with the National Public-Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) on issues such as public safety-grade standards and more.

A year ago, I wrote the APCO board of directors and officers an open letter stating my concerns about the shift in the organization’s purpose. The only answer I received was from the executive director and that was a rather curt note telling me I could write an article for the APCO magazine. No one else bothered to respond, so like the old saying goes, my comments fell on deaf ears. However, I still belong to the California Public-Safety Radio Association (CPRA) the Southern California Chapter of APCO and one of the hold-outs when it come to focus on mobile communications. I will remain a senior member of APCO and support it where and when I can but I keep hoping that during its next election cycle it will have some candidates from other than dispatch organizations.

FirstNet and land mobile radio are a critical part of public safety communications. LMR is not going away anytime soon, nor should it, and FirstNet is respectful of that issue. While there is a lot of hype still out there about Mission-Critical PTT and other mission-critical fantasies, we are a long way from being able to say FirstNet is the only mobile communications network needed for public safety. Some say that will happen sooner rather than later, but I believe it will be later rather than sooner. Voice is a lifeline and cutting that lifeline or transferring it to FirstNet will not make FirstNet truly mission-critical-capable. And then there is my concern that if FirstNet is the only communications channel for public safety, some bad actors will get wise to that and take down enough of it in a given area to do some serious damage while the public safety community finds its only communications pipe is not working. I hope we are never put in that position.

Andrew M Seybold
©2018, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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