I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday regardless of what you celebrated and now you are rejuvenated and ready to return to work. As Advocate readers may recall, toward the end of 2022, I wrote the first two parts of a three-part series. Between then and 2023, I learned of more recent developments and thought discussion of these took precedence over preparing the third and last part of the series. Now I’m back and ready to pick up where I left off:
In Parts 1 and 2, I discussed Land Mobile Radio (LMR) devices, when they came into being, and how they progressed over the years. I then I turned to public safety, public safety devices, and when they began becoming available.
In this discussion, I pointed out some of the differences between LMR and public safety devices and network capabilities. LMR was being used before and during World War II. Naturally, after the war a number of communications equipment vendors that had been supplying the military and others began eyeing public safety and LMR services and decided there was a market that could support their products and services.
We moved from single-frequency, single-band LMR devices that are still available to a much wider variety of devices including multiband, inbuilding Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Some portables that have been certified by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) to withstand harsh environments including high temperatures for survivability when used by fire service. Today, pricing for both mobile and portable LMR devices has come down and single-band multiple-channel radios have been designed for specific applications in the LMR industry. These applications are used by public safety personnel that need quick and easy communications with others at an incident, and with incident command and emergency communications. Only a few years ago, one would have to pay more than $1,000 for many of these single-band radios. Today, prices for these radios range from about $500 to $1,000 and, in some cases, there are multiple options and configurations available within these price ranges.
When the LMR industry first started developing and selling multiband LMR devices, prices were, and still are, at the upper end of the LMR pricing structure. Furthermore, several vendors have decided to add Band 14 (the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) or public safety) as allocated by the federal government and licensed to the FirstNet Authority by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Of course, this is driving prices further up.
Later in this article, I will share some cautions LMR users and purchasers should keep in mind. For example, the first LMR devices to include Band 14 run with one or more Push-To-Talk (PTT) vendors’ applications. However, if Android or Apple devices are to run existing standard public safety applications, or if public safety broadband devices are to be used in the field, Band 14 functionality will have to be increased. At the moment, it looks like applications that will be available to LMR multiband/broadband will most likely have been influenced by vendors that are involved with LMR devices in the Android world. Android software appears to be the easiest to rework or can be reworked for both Android and iOS to provide more than push-to-talk and maybe a few other over-the-air programming functions.
As in the first two parts of this article, I will recap some of what I consider to be important attributes for LMR devices and later do the same for public safety-capable and certified devices. In the meantime, what has happened for public safety communications is clear. Over the last five or more years, there has been a huge leap forward not only for those in the field but also those at Emergency Control Centers (ECCs), Incident Command (IC), and field personnel working on incidents in areas where communications are still difficult to provide.
So, LMR priority is available from a few channels on a specific portion of the FCC licensed public safety spectrum all the way through multiple devices, some of which include broadband public safety spectrum.
Again, it is worth repeating that the difference in cost between LMR and public safety broadband devices can, perhaps, make the broadband system seem like the only and best choice.
I have stated many times that I believe at least the near future (undefinable) the public safety community will be best served by having both LMR and the public safety networkavailable. Then as soon as possible, make sure multiple LMR networks and the single public safety network are at least interconnected with push-to-talk. This will be the beginning of materialization of a fully-interoperable public safety system.
Returning to the differences between LMR and public safety, LMR systems are built specifically for public safety, business, and industrial use. LMR devices were not designed for nationwide service; they were intended to serve local jurisdictions and, over time, to be equipped with multiple channels to help solve some interoperability problems that could not be fully resolved until the public safety network was created and being filled out.
Because LMR devices were built for rugged use from day one and have to last a full shift and perhaps more, they use standard batteries. Today, batteries are removable and rechargeable, some in a short period of time. Many vendors have built battery shells that can hold a number of standard batteries (usually AA cells) and can be replenished during long-term incidents.
Another difference is that both mobile and portable devices for LMR have external antennas for higher power than can be provided with today’s public safety-certified devices. Once again, these capabilities are built in to produce units that can talk over greater distances and to enable their battery to be changed out as needed for field use.
Except for their over-the air-capabilities, the final difference is that many of the radios have been designed for remote speaker mic’s (microphones) to be mounted on users’ lapels so their gear is closer to the speakers and the PTT button is only a short distance from their hands. Many public safety devices now offer similar speaker mic’s although most of them are connected via wireless Bluetooth, which, in many cases, means one less wire to be caught or damaged.
The need to provide hardened radios, that is, radios that can take a lot of abuse during incidents and continue to work, has always been a major requirement for those using LMR units. Later in this article you will see how the FirstNet vendor community is beginning to follow some of the hardening issues that have become a stable in the LMR world.
Which LMR Unit is Best for My Agency?
In most cases, the answer is that a variety of LMR devices should be considered and, in many cases, it is not necessary for every first responder to carry the most expensive multiband radio unless they have a specific need for it. This becomes more meaningful as departments roll out FirstNet and FirstNet devices and as LMR and FirstNet are connected, at least for push-to-talk.
Agencies tend to select the same radios for LMR that the network vendor provides. This makes sense because it saves some money on radios purchased by the agency or municipality that can be used to upgrade their LMR network. More and more agencies are finding that they can also make a deal for the pricing they are willing to pay for two add-ons for their fleet.
Both LMR and FirstNet customers are aware of a dichotomy: LMR devices can be upgraded and do not need to be replaced every few years but FirstNet radios are not designed for a long life. FirstNet radios are designed to attract commercial buyers every time a new version of the phone or tablet is released, and as more vendors become interested in the public safety marketplace, they make it easier for first responders to operate these radios.
As noted before, prices increase when moving to higher-capability land mobile radios. However, FirstNet radios are basically the same as radios purchased by consumers and businesses. This increases the total number of devices that can be built and sold into a worldwide market, which translates to lower prices than in the smaller FirstNet market and lower unit prices for public safety.
Perhaps lower prices are one reason elected officials with no understanding of the differences between LMR and FirstNet are not willing to spend money (or more money) on their LMR systems and favor of moving their first responders to FirstNet.
There are many ways to compare LMR and FirstNet networks and devices. A comparison spreadsheet is usually built by someone from among those who authorize expenditures. However, the only devices these people have ever used are cell phones or tablets.
Another way is to compare what is needed today and how long it will be before the radios need to be replaced. The “lifespan” of a land mobile radio is significantly longer than the lifespan of standard cell phones. LMR systems have been built over time and expanded to fill in gaps where populations have increased. That’s not to say FirstNet, as built, does not cover the same areas as LMR, but there are differences today in building penetration, off-network push-to-talk, and basically anyplace FirstNet devices require higher power that is available on Band 14.
This exercise can be designed to come out the way the person building the spreadsheet wants it.
When AT&T was awarded the contract to build, operate, and maintain the FirstNet network, one of the smartest things it did was to convince multiple vendors to add Band 14, the public safety band, to its new handhelds and tablets, to open the door to an important, albeit smaller, market. Over the last five years, more and more vendors are entering the FirstNet market with many different types of devices. Today there is an Apple device that can download the approved FirstNet applications. You can also purchase Android devices that will download the Android flavor of the applications.
Several vendors, starting with Sonim, built phones designed for FirstNet that included parity and removable batteries. Today, Sonim offers a “sled” that can be put on the back of its device to add LMR-like features. Another vendor, Kyocera, decided external batteries were important and delivered some really nice FirstNet approved and certified devices.
When considering FirstNet devices, it is important to examine them and consider how they will be used in the field. For example, in many instances devices will be used to provide location, video, and picture information to the field and from the field to the ECC. This application needs a larger screen with very good visibility even in the high light conditions.
Some groups within agencies can easily leave their LMR units at home and use only the FirstNet device. Examples include building inspectors who can carry a tablet loaded with all the information they need. It is also possible that fire investigators and others will no longer need to carry an LMR device or have one installed in the car. This is true for many senior level executives at agencies.
There could also be a hybrid combination of LMR and FirstNet systems. Some responders and agencies would carry both devices or a combination device, others may carry only a FirstNet device that is, hopefully, integrated with their LMR push-to-talk system so they can listen and take part in incidents without having to carry an LMR unit or having one installed in their vehicle.
Mobile radios provide capabilities for both LMR and FirstNet. Generally, LMR devices are permanently mounted in the vehicles, are running High-Power User Devices (HPUE), and are equipped with external antennas. As with LMR units, the original radios were all single band with a few channels. Today, field radios for vehicles have become smaller and easier to install and use. L3Harris has basically started with its LMR handhelds and added Band 14. Then it built all of that into a robust mobile radio that includes Wi-Fi, all of the public safety bands, 900-MHz, and Band 14. It will be interesting to see how the industry continues to develop a variety of types of devices: LMR-only; multiband LMR and Band 14; one-band LMR; and Band 14. FirstNet vendors will continue working on and enhancing its radios and devices. Enhancements will include mobile routers that connect as Wi-Fi hotspots at an incident, high-power user equipment, and devices that are available for mobile units today that could conceivably be available in a handheld version.
The public safety community has gone from having a few unfixed spectrum allocations with a fixed number of channels to a host of available devices for both land mobile radio and FirstNet. As I have asked before, who will carry what type of device for what purpose? Will those in the field carry a device that also delivers data to and from sensors on other equipment they are using, or on their physical condition? Will some vendors take this opportunity to build combined FirstNet and LMR units?
If a way could be figured out to marry a FirstNet radio or device with one or more LMR portions of radios, agencies could purchase FirstNet devices and then buy Simon sleds for portions of Band 14 public safety spectrum. Depending on how it was designed, this new radio could be used simply for off-network or simplex operation or, as technology continues to improve, this radio could be used for more portions of LMR.
My final point of this series is that public safety has more and better communication choices than ever, and more choices are coming. I will be watching to see how this world surrounding public safety develops as vendors provide new and different types of devices, and new and different needs are found by personnel in the field. Cellular phones and tablets capable of being certified on FirstNet can be built by the millions, necessities and add-ons can also be built in large quantities. If these products are something the public will want, those who believe we will end up with one nationwide public safety broadband network may be right someday.
In the meantime, the public safety community is better equipped with communications than it has ever been. With FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and LMR vendors all working on next-generation devices, I, for one, can hardly wait.
Short and sweet, next week it’s time for me to review my predictions for 2022, see how we fared, and make some new predictions for 2023. As we move forward, we need to continue to be aware that the vendor community is working for the public safety community. Vendors need to listen long and hard to what public safety wants and needs. We have five years of experience with using both FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and various LMR systems with both analog and digital technologies. An LMR trunked radio system is not that far from services provided by FirstNet except, once again, LMR radios and systems are limited in capabilities, usually push-to-talk.
So far, it looks like what I thought could be accomplished in 2022 wasn’t, or only some elements came to be.
Until next week,
Andrew M. Seybold, Sr.
©2023, Andrew Seybold, Inc.