Public Safety Advocate: APCO Conference

As advertised last week, this week’s Advocate is late because I spent much of the week at the APCO Conference in Baltimore. Having been raised on the East Coast, I was concerned about the heat and humidity in Baltimore, but the weather could not have been better. Although very different from APCOs of old, the conference was good, well run, and well attended. However, there are signs everywhere indicating that today’s APCO is not like previous APCOs. Even during the keynote, the Fox newscaster (not the person advertised but a good speaker) started by addressing the men and woman who serve public safety as PSAP operators and dispatchers, which was fine, but I also expected him to say something about the men and woman who work in the field protecting and serving. He did not, but since today’s APCO management is from the dispatch side, I should not have been surprised.

If it had not been for FirstNet’s presence, companies riding or wanting to ride FirstNet’s coattails and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) companies probably would not have participated. This year the show floor was made up primarily of software, dispatch, and dispatch furniture. Since LMR essentially built APCO, I am disappointed at what it has become. Even so, the conference was a good event. The FirstNet-oriented sessions I attended and an APCO session on Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) were well attended and their content was solid. 

The Motorola and FirstNet (built with AT&T) booths were side-by-side and both were packed with people interested in LMR and/or FirstNet and how they work together. There was far too much hype about Mission Critical PTT (MCPTT), which I wish had never been named as such by the 3GPP standards body since no one really knows what it is and what it will look like. Further, MCPTT is not mission-critical. An application is only one element of mission-critical communications. The network must meet mission-critical standards and the device operating system also plays an important role.

While at the show, I discovered that Apple O/S 12.4, its newest version, shuts down activity in the background to stop or slow data being sent to other vendors or companies. Most Push-To-Talk (PTT) applications run in the background so 12.4 essentially stops their activity as well. I also heard this only happens when using a remote speaker mic, but I have not had time to verify this claim. My iPhone has both the Kodiak-branded Motorola PTT and ESChat PTT so I will be experimenting to see if Apple really did interfere with a critical communications capability. Note: if you look at the URL indicated above you will see that Apple has fixed this bug! Congrats to them!

I walked the entire show multiple times looking for products and services of interest. I only saw one Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or drone) company and it was way in the back, which surprised me since UAVs are in the forefront of new ways to provide public safety services. I only saw a few hardened tablets, none of which I would write about today. This also surprised me since I am a big believer in replacing laptops in vehicles with tablets that can be taken out and used by the first Incident Commander as a command-and-control communications device and to keep track of incoming assets, locate fire hydrants and more, identify where law enforcement has blocked roads or roads that need to be blocked, view drone footage of a scene for a better perspective, and use TV Data Casting services in the future. I will discuss TV Data Casting services in more detail in an upcoming Advocate. I believe this is a service capable of altering the way we use video on a local, regional, or national level.

NG911

As mentioned, APCO staff and its Next Generation 9-1-1 expert did a great job describing what is happening with NG911, that its outcome depends on how Requests for Proposals are written and, of course, what happens with the $12B bill in both houses of Congress that needs to be passed to implement NG911 nationally. I commented during the session that people in Congress I have talked with have not made the connection that NG911 is the “feeder” network for FirstNet. It will provide voice, text, video, and pictures to be vetted by PSAP and dispatch centers and then sent to first responders. While NG911 will not be the only solution to take advantage of FirstNet capabilities, it will certainly increase FirstNet’s value in the field. 

Included in the NG911 session (to be available after August 26) was a good, solid method of recording information that needs to be presented in the same manner everywhere in order to intake and output the exact information to be sent to other PSAPs or agencies and used without the need for modification. In conversations with public safety people who are working on NG911, I learned the public safety community has some issues with the APCO definition. This needs to be sorted out since it is the public safety community that has the clout with Congress (as demonstrated when we were campaigning for FirstNet). I hope this all comes together—NG911 is too important not to. 

There were a number of NG911 exhibitors and all of them claimed to be NG911-compliant because they met this standard or that standard. However, simply meeting a standard does not mean what you are offering the public safety community is true NG911 by definition as released by APCO, or includes what the public safety community believes is needed for full interoperability. Some comments from both APCO and vendors indicate cloud-based solutions could work and would be less expensive. However, it is not clear if they were pushing for Internet cloud-based services or other than Internet access to the cloud. This will be interesting to watch and I will have further comments going forward.

T-Band

The T-band spectrum that was for TV channels and now being used in eleven major metro areas was also getting a lot of play. Even so, there still does not seem to be the momentum we need in Congress to pass the simplest of bills to keep the T-band usable for land mobile radio. I have written countless times about the fact that this spectrum is worthless outside LMR public safety and some commercial operators. The T-band is not worth anything to anyone else because:

  • Not all of the T-band is used by all eleven metro areas, 
  • The rest of the country has active TV stations on this spectrum that cannot be moved to offer a nationwide footprint for broadband, 
  • 470–512-MHz is terrible spectrum for broadband 
    • Antennas would have to be too big
    • Interference from TV stations on adjacent channels would wipe out much of the band. 

The highest and best use for this spectrum is what it is currently being used for: land mobile radio for public safety and some business users in some cities. 

The deadline for eliminating the give-back requirement is nearing and this issue MUST  be acted upon quickly in order to maintain systems in use today that have nowhere to go and no money to move. I ran into a good friend at the conference who is active in a volunteer fire department in Delaware County, Penn. This county’s police, fire, and other communications are all in the T-band and have been for years. It has nowhere to go. Apparently, one of the county’s potential consultants said it might be able to acquire ten pairs of trunked 700—maybe. Ten pairs for the entire county serving all public safety users does not begin to be sufficient. Further, the costs will have to be borne by the county and the need to add more radio sites will add to the transition costs. There is almost no time left to build a new system and to run it in parallel with the current T-band system before the deadline is reached. In the days we worked so hard for FirstNet we did not fully realize the T-band situation and why a very few in Congress demanded spectrum in return for spectrum, especially since their expectations then were that this spectrum was worth billions of dollars. 

A lot of work is being done to save the T-band but the public safety community needs to let its elected House and Senate officials know this needs to be resolved NOW in order to see this bill passed. Please contact your elected officials today.

Winding Down

It was a long but good week in Baltimore seeing old friends, greeting and talking to readers, and meeting new folks. I was able to spend some time with FirstNet new hires and concluded that FirstNet has been able to find very qualified people who are dedicated to public safety and bring them onboard. Once as I walked the aisles, I was stopped by a gentleman manning a booth along with his boss and a few other associates. He wanted to tell me that many years ago he attended one of our Wireless Data University sessions we conducted the day before CTIA Conferences for nineteen years. He said that was the start of his involvement in wireless communications and he thanked me. 

This industry has some great and talented people and I have been having ongoing discussions with a number of organizations to find a way to honor many of them with a hall of fame of our own. The Wireless History Foundation does a great job on the cellular side of wireless but does not seem to be interested in bringing in those who contributed to land mobile radio and now FirstNet. I will continue to work on this until we can put something together. Then the trick will be naming the first-year inductees. Deciding who should be included in the initial group will be difficult, but I look forward having to decide!

FirstNet announced some new highs at APCO: 9,000 public safety agencies and 750,000 customers. These are great numbers and I expect them to continue to grow. FirstNet is well aware there is more to be done and is giving its all. 

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

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