Public Safety Advocate: Bluetooth 5.0, Public-Safety Communications Report Card

Bluetooth, developed by Ericsson and named for a Danish Warlord, has become a part of almost every wireless device. Originally, Ericsson determined it could not successfully introduce Bluetooth on its own so a deal was worked out with Intel and the first U.S. demonstration took place on December 7, 1999. I attended this demonstration and predicted Bluetooth would be a success. The interesting aftermath was that Intel decided Bluetooth would not be a significant new source of revenue and basically gave the technology to the industry. Today, Bluetooth is overseen by an industry organization with a huge number of member companies, all of which contribute to revisions of the technology. 

The premise then and now is for Bluetooth to be a short-range audio connection between devices. Most of us use Bluetooth today with Bluetooth ear buds, Bluetooth speakers within 100-150 feet of an audio source, and much more. Bluetooth also found its way into public-safety communications and today it is built into many Land Mobile Radio (LMR) and FirstNet (LTE) devices. Motorola employs Bluetooth to provide connections between its APX portable radios and LEX LTE device to enable a single device to control both the APX and LEX via a Bluetooth connection.

Enter Bluetooth 5.0

There have been a number of major upgrades since the introduction of Bluetooth. The latest and perhaps most relevant to the public-safety community was the Bluetooth organization’s release of Bluetooth 5.0 in 2016. Bluetooth 5.0 contains a number of revisions that are well-suited for the public-safety communications market. First, the range of a 5.0 device is said to be up to 800 feet, compared to 150 feet for earlier versions. Bluetooth 5.0 can also be used in a mesh network, which is described as:

“A mesh network (or simply meshnet) is a local network topology in which the infrastructure nodes (i.e. bridges, switches, and other infrastructure devices) connect directly, dynamically and non-hierarchically to as many other nodes as possible and cooperate with one another to efficiently route data from/to clients.” Mesh networks are self-creating and self-healing which means that as nodes are added or lost, the network reconfigures itself and continues to operate. This is of value mostly in the Internet of Things (IoT) world of public safety devices but could play different and interesting rolls going forward.”

I see the most important advancement in Bluetooth 5.0 to be the ability for a Bluetooth device to be connected to two different devices. This means a single speaker/microphone could be used to communicate with an LMR radio and FirstNet smartphone though some user issues still need to be worked out. For example, would the speaker receive feeds from both audios at the same time? Would audio from the primary device be louder than audio from the secondary device? How would public-safety professionals know which unit is “live” for the Push-To-Talk (PTT) function?

I have confidence in those who develop features to augment public-safety LMR and FirstNet will resolve any issues surrounding dual-use capability. Some may have, but so far, I have not been unable to find products that permit dual Bluetooth connections. The ability to “lose the wire” between devices would be welcomed by many in the public-safety community whose belts and chests are already full of devices, some, including a weapon or taser, being heavier and/or bulkier. 

Today’s peace officers on patrol are likely to carry an LMR handheld with a speaker/mic connected by a wire running up to their shoulder, a FirstNet or LTE device, and perhaps a separate body camera clipped to their uniform. Features that are available or in development include turning the body camera on when the weapon or taser is drawn, measuring peace officers’ vital signs, and more. If these devices are part of an officer’s own personal mesh network, it seems to me that Bluetooth 5.0 could be easily implemented. 

Several vendors have been showing devices to monitor surrounding temperatures, how much air is left in a firefighter’s air pack, firefighters’ vital signs, and there will be more over time. Again, it appears that Bluetooth 5.0 will make these connections simpler and they will be automatically recognized if they are in a mesh configuration, thereby leaving a channel open for audio from one or more communications devices.

Bluetooth 5.0 also has another claim to fame. In addition to multiple-device capability, better range (800 feet), the ability to channel hop, and other ways to coexist with other wireless technologies, the specification claims a single-cell battery will power the device for up to ten years. It surprises me that Bluetooth 5.0 was released in 2016 yet I have not seen much written about it, nor have I seen devices touting its new capabilities. According to the specifications, 5.0 is also fully capable of supporting Bluetooth 4 devices in a backward-compatibility mode, but the Bluetooth 4 devices will not provide all the new features and capabilities of Bluetooth 5.0 devices.

Bluetooth 5.0 has been available in a number of phones including some from Samsung and Apple. I had to look up my iPhone 10Xs to find out it not only has 5.0 built in, it has enhanced data, high-speed, low energy, and slot availability masking capabilities that enable version 5.0 to coexist with all past Bluetooth versions as well as other and sometimes competing wireless technologies around it. Both WiFi and Bluetooth operate in the 2.4-GHz band. 

As it turns out, there are more Bluetooth 5.0 devices on the market than I realized. I would have thought that by now vendors would be touting the additional capabilities of Bluetooth 5.0, especially in the public-safety community where the use of two or more wireless devices is common. Perhaps I have missed these products if they exist, but I assume vendors will tell me if I have. If I were a vendor, I certainly would be touting my Bluetooth 5.0 capabilities, especially its multi-device features and functions. 

A number of companies including Pryme, Motorola, L3Harris, and many others are building Bluetooth remote speaker/mics for LMR devices. Other Bluetooth devices are being built for surveillance communications systems and, of course, they are being used with FirstNet broadband smartphones and tablets. Bluetooth has a limited range, for example, earlier versions of standard Bluetooth devices are based on release 4.2 and advertise a maximum range of fifty meters (about 150 feet). Bluetooth 4.2 and previous versions are only capable of one-to-one relationships. In other words, if your smartphone is using Bluetooth for your earbuds and you are also carrying an LMR portable radio, you cannot quickly and easily switch from the smartphone audio to the LMR portable audio even though the LMR device is also Bluetooth-enabled. 

I would like to see more vendors make use of the functions available in Bluetooth 5.0 or publicize devices that already include its attributes. Just one note, probably somewhat of a dig, but if Bluetooth really has a range of 800 feet there is a good chance it can out-perform LTE off-network ProSe as it stands today. 

Public-Safety Communications Report Card

In the January 9, 2020 Advocate, I provided a set of goals I labeled as “musts, high level of importance, and nice to see.” Since the year is nearly half over, I thought it time to check on the “must” set of goals and evaluate the government, FirstNet, and others to see how we have done so far. I fully realize that much of the nation, especially our first-responder community, has been otherwise occupied for the past few months and that has had an impact on what has been accomplished. Nonetheless, here are my findings.

  • Congress must repeal the T-Band giveback. Waiting any longer is not fair to those who use T-Band channels every day to provide public-safety communications for their communities.
    • The House of Representatives added this provision to the newest COVID-19 bill it passed on May 13, 2020. This bill is headed for the Senate where many sections will be debated but hopefully the repeal the T-Band provision will survive. There are also other provisions in this bill to assist public safety. For a complete list, see the IAFC website. 
    • The FCC Chairman has once again asked Congress to repeal the T-Band. Meanwhile, as required by law, he has begun the first phase of an auction for the T-Band spectrum even though he and all those who have researched this issue know it will result in a failed auction with public-safety agencies and the communities they represent paying a stiff price if they are required to move off this spectrum.
  • A law must be passed to upgrade Emergency Communications Center (ECC) personnel to public-safety status. This is vitally important as those serving in these positions need and deserve this recognition. 
    • Still pending
    • California will probably be the next state to pass this upgrade to the status of ECC personnel on a statewide basis but we really need the U.S. Congress to vote and pass this soon!
  • Rule to leave the 4.9-GHz band for public safety use exclusively, no sharing.
    • No action taken by the FCC
  • Protect the 6-GHz microwave band by denying unlicensed use. It is questionable whether a nationwide database will protect all mission-critical microwave already in the band.
    • We lost this oneThe FCC granted full WiFi 6 use of the 6-GHz band that is heavily used for critical communications microwave systems.        
  • Rule that the FirstNet network will remain as it is today—a single, nationwide, network as intended by Congress.
    • No action taken by the FCC
  • Rule that permitting commercial for-profit networks to interoperate with FirstNet is not in the best interests of public safety.
    • No action taken by the FCC
  • Congress must fund nationwide rollout of Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911).
    • Still no action from Congress. All 9-1-1 centers need to be upgraded to Next-Generation standards and one would think this would have been given priority during this pandemic and the response of the 9-1-1 community.
  • Not on my FCC list was for the FCC to rule to permit Ligado to build a “low-powered” 5G network for the Internet of Things (IoT) in spectrum adjacent to the GPS band. The DOD and the its military agencies are opposed to this and will ask Congress to negate this ruling. The implications for public safety are potential loss of GPS location data near Ligado cell sites and potential interference to GPS signals needed for P25 trunked radio systems, FirstNet, and all commercial broadband networks.
  • Land mobile radio to FirstNet push-to-talk interfaces must be made simpler and less expensive to deploy.
    • Some progress has been made. However, I still believe having too many different organizations and viewpoints is slowing progress. We cannot wait for 3GPP standards to resolve this issue. This item should be on a critical path to implementation. 
  • Require all push-to-talk vendors’ products on FirstNet to be interoperable with all other vendors’ FirstNet-approved push-to-talk. I would also like to see FirstNet agree to use over-the-top PTT applications that provide network interoperability without requiring commercial networks to be fully integrated with FirstNet.
    • Some progress has been made and as you probably know, at the end of March, AT&T released its version of a Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT)-compliant product. The good news is it is not being referred to as MCPTT but rather MCPTT-compliant. The bad news is we are still not able to provide PTT interoperability across FirstNet and it appears this situation is not receiving the attention it deserves. FirstNet was established to solve the issue of nationwide interoperability for all first responders. Yet until we have PTT interoperability on FirstNet, we will not have truly met the intent of the FirstNet mission.
  • FirstNet (Built with AT&T) must continue to build out the network and Band 14 ahead of schedule.
    • This item rates an A+. Not only does FirstNet continue to build out ahead of schedule, it is adding more first-responder agencies. It appears concerns about broadband and Internet bandwidth have driven even more agencies to join FirstNet. The FirstNet network delivers all AT&T’s LTE spectrum to first responders and at the same time it provides 20 MHz of what is essentially public-safety-only spectrum in the form of Band 14 700-MHz spectrum. Higher-power devices can be used on Band 14 to provide even better coverage and higher data rates overall.

As you can see, we have made some progress, but not as much as I had hoped for. Some of the delays are, of course, due to the pandemic, but some of these issues should have risen to a higher level of priority, especially considering how our first responders, hospital staffs, and many others have risen to meet the challenges they have faced. I would have thought this pandemic would have pushed Congress to upgrade the tools public safety needs to better deliver their services. The Hill is printing money in an attempt to solve unemployment and other major issues. If they would run the printing presses for a few more hours they could better prepare those who are in harm’s way every day. 

Winding Down

I want to thank Chief J. J. Johnson (Ret.), who is now CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, and his staff. During the past year, the association has featured several Public Safety Advocate articles in its Daily Dispatch and I appreciate it. Reaching people within fire service is helpful in adding new subscribers, but more importantly, some Daily Dispatch readers have submitted comments and suggestions, for which I am thankful. I try to cover issues I believe to be of interest to the public-safety community and the more input I receive from readers, the better I am able to tailor my content. 

This week is Emergency Medical Services (EMS) week. At this particular time, these first responders are constantly putting themselves in danger of falling victim to COVID-19 while they are trying to save lives. This has to make a stressful job even more so and I want to add my thanks to these dedicated professionals.

I consider the years I worked at BioCom to have been some of the best years of my life. BioCom invented and produced the first paramedic voice and EKG field units, called BioPhones, though they soon came to be known as “orange boxes.” As we were rolling out these orange boxes in the early 1970s, I traveled cross-country many times to demonstrate their capabilities to paramedics and hospitals. The most satisfying trips were when I went to cities that had not yet implemented a paramedic program but after a lot of publicity about BioPhones and a hands-on demonstration of its capabilities, many of these cities launched their own paramedic programs. 

In the early 1970s, ER personnel including doctors did not have a lot of faith in paramedics so paramedics had few if any standing orders. In many cases, they were not even able to start an IV without contacting the ER and getting a doctor’s order. In this regard, “Rescue 51” in “Emergency” gave a fairly true-to-life picture of what it was like for early paramedics. Today, the EMS community has a slew of standing orders for one simple reason—paramedics have earned the trust of the medical community. So once again, thanks to all EMS professionals and their support staff, this week and every week. 

As the nation slowly opens up and we find out what the new normal will be for us for a while, I hope everyone stays safe and follows guidelines that are in place for their area or state. 

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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2 Comments on "Public Safety Advocate: Bluetooth 5.0, Public-Safety Communications Report Card"

  1. John Contestabile | May 21, 2020 at 12:34 pm | Reply

    Andy…good observations as usual….just a quick note on Bluetooth….I connect my phone to my iPad via Bluetooth and I have been amazed at the “reach”…I can go anywhere in my house/property and it still stays connected…that coupled with the ability to connect to more than one device does deserve more consideration in the public safety market….kudos

  2. Bluetooth 5.0 certainly flew under my radar. Imagine paramedics in rural areas with unreliable cell coverage being able to connect to the mobile router with HPUE in the ambulance and send the 12 lead EKG from inside the patient’s residence. Most current monitor defibrillators have Bluetooth but whether it’s 5.0 wouldn’t be known without a spec sheet. As for ProSe, this theoretically would give 1.3 city blocks of coverage without multiple mobile routers which could be programmed to form a mesh ‘bubble’ at any scene with more than one unit. Great Topic Andy, I’ll now spend the next couple of hours researching it so I’ll grasp the essential features.

    Randy K.

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