Public Safety Advocate: CES and more News and Views

First, I must admit I did not attend the yearly Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that is held in Las Vegas in early January. In fact, I have not attended CES for the last eight years or so because CES had been about electronics and buried within this huge show there might have been some wireless products. It turns out that this year CES was a huge event for wireless, public safety communications, and a look into the future of devices that are or will be controlled by wireless systems.

What I have learned from others who did attend was that wireless took center stage in many sections of the show. Fifth-Generation (5G) systems were promoted, demonstrated, and used to control many different types of electronic devices coming to consumers, businesses, and public safety real soon now. I say Real Soon Now (RSN) because many of the products and demonstrations shown at CES each year are not yet ready for prime time or store shelves. Many of the projects shown at CES are precursors for what the industry can expect to enter the marketplace when year-end Christmas shopping commences. Still, CES is becoming a good show for those who want to see the latest in wireless and what is coming in the future. 

After the last day of CES there was another day referred to as CES Government 2019. This is one day I wish I had attended since there were a number of informative speeches given by members of the federal government and business communities dealing with cloud computing, and leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) in government and business today. One planned speech, “Cyber 2019: Threats and Trends” was cancelled due to the government shutdown. It was to have been presented by the Deputy Assistant Director for Cyber Security for the FBI, but there were a number of other great sessions.

I listened to the recorded speech from the session I was most interested in, presented by Acting FirstNet.gov CEO Ed Parkinson. Ed has been assisting public safety since well before FirstNet was mandated by law. When he worked in Congress as a staffer, he was very helpful to all of us dedicated to the concept. After FirstNet was formed, he joined FirstNet as the government liaison and today, he is acting CEO. His speech covered much of what FirstNet is doing, how far it has come since the beginning, and then he talked about how FirstNet could be and should be working with others to help promote wireless. He mentioned rural broadband, which is an area I am very interested in, and basically, I hope he opened the eyes of those who are not in public safety to ancillary activities in which FirstNet could be a contributor. He talked about how the money being raised from the use of the public safety spectrum will be re-invested in the network, and he pointed out that FirstNet has added more than 50,000 square miles to its coverage. His final push was to encourage other industries to identify ways to work with FirstNet and public safety on new and different solutions. 

I believe this type of speech is becoming more important. Audiences not directly involved with public safety include many who don’t even know what FirstNet is or the impact it will have on public safety communications and other broadband activities. With FirstNet gaining more and more traction and growing the network coverage, the number public safety subscribers, devices, and applications, it is time to educate those who don’t know about what is being done. Vendors or other interested parties can find a way to work with FirstNet, too. For example, they can help extend rural broadband coverage or perhaps provide new and unique devices and applications. 

Hopefully, at CES many of those who make their living inventing, developing, and selling technology learned about FirstNet simply by being exposed to the various conference sessions, law enforcement vehicles, drones (excuse me, UAVs), and much more. It is almost impossible to see all CES has to offer because of its size. It is even more difficult to recap the most important technology advances shown at the show if you were not in attendance. Thank goodness for social media and those who did attend.

Rural Broadband Coverage

Most of you know I am very interested not only in how to connect rural public safety agencies to wireless broadband, but also in how to connect citizens, schools, students, government facilities, and more to broadband using a combination of fiber and wireless. Last year saw several attempts by Congress to create a new organization in the federal government to manage and handle all broadband initiatives. This organization would become a funnel for managing all the funds including those already approved by the many different government agencies. Today, each agency has different requirements for applications, with different deadlines, and many of these agencies seem to believe that fiber to the home, school, or farm is the ONLY way to provide broadband.

Fourth-Generation (4G) wireless broadband can provide data speeds down to devices of 20-Mbps or more and up speeds of several megabytes. New Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technologies such as spectrum aggregation and soon 5G deployments, when ready for prime time, will increase data speeds to compete with fiber. Yes, 5G small cells will be limited in range, but even in rural towns, a combination of 4G, 5G, and WiFi can provide satisfactory speeds over a wide area, not confined to a home, business, or farm home. As I have stated before, farmers want and need broadband that is mobile to use to control many of their machines, watering systems, and even their ability to market their products.

Meanwhile, there are smaller Internet Service Providers (IPS), phone companies, rural power companies, and others that would like very much to both make use of and provide broadband services in the areas they serve. However, we need a better way to manage all the federal assets. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently announced that one company stole millions of dollars from the Lifeline program, and many other grants do not provide any ongoing sustaining funding for insurance, power, and system upkeep and enhancement.

When I talk with federal agencies with available funding, I find many of them have never heard of FirstNet. Now that the FirstNet network is well established and serves many rural communities, it is time for others within the federal and state governments, and citizens to learn what FirstNet is, that it has excess broadband bandwidth available in rural areas for use by others not related to public safety, and that partnerships are (I believe) the only way we will be able to provide rural broadband to more citizens than FirstNet alone can provide.

Perhaps it is time for FirstNet.gov to let other agencies know it exists, and what company serves as its private-sector partner. We won’t solve the rural broadband and poverty issues unless there is an awareness of how FirstNet.gov (FirstNet the Authority) and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) (the network) are working together. This public/private partnership has had a tremendous amount of success and there is more to come. We cannot simply keep kicking the problem down dirt roads, we need to sit back, organize, and then charge ahead with a common direction and goal.

Other Broadband Solutions

We keep hearing about numerous little satellites being launched to provide worldwide broadband access. One company is still trying to convince airlines to sign on to putting baby cell sites on the underbellies of their planes so as they fly around, they will provide wireless broadband access. I keep asking those involved in these projects about the return on investment. The answers I hear are that this is a very lucrative new set of technologies. However, when you look at past attempts to provide data over satellite, not for fixed services but for mobile services, you can track failure after failure. 

One of the goals is to provide broadband to people living in areas where it is not available to them today, but most of these areas are populated by people who do not have much money, and in many cases cannot even afford to feed their families. The rationale is that if they have broadband Internet, they will be able to lift themselves up and have a better life. I believe this is true. Years ago, I worked on a Qualcomm project where a village was provided access to cellular. Farmers in the area were then able to determine the quantity of their products to bring to the market and how many stores and restaurants might want their produce or products. The result was less spoilage and better income for farmers in the area. 

I have no idea if this program is still in existence but it appears to prove the belief that providing broadband can change people’s lives as it is changing public safety, but who will fund the project and how will it become self-sustaining? The FirstNet partnership provides revenue for both parties, it enables AT&T to recoup the $billions it is spending on the network, and to make money over the life of the twenty-five-year contract. FirstNet.gov is reaping the benefits and using a little of the funding to operate the organization, then provide more funds for additional network build-out, maintenance, and more. The Qualcomm program was an experiment and it proved that helping people obtain broadband connectivity is a good thing. However, there must be a sustaining program to fund these projects and/or make them self-sufficient so they can continue. I don’t believe those trying new ways to distribute broadband to the world have considered the return on investment, which I, for one, don’t believe is viable.

Winding Down

A few months ago, I wrote an Advocate about technology coming at us too quickly to truly be absorbed and used properly. I am still concerned about that, especially after what transpired at CES in Las Vegas, including some but not all of the vendors introducing new technology to solve a problem that does not exist. Technology for the sake of technology is not the way to move public safety forward. Rather, you must start by confirming the public safety community has a problem your idea or invention might help make easier or even fix. 

If I have learned one thing over the years working with public safety agencies, is that if you burn them once, you won’t have a second chance. Don’t bring them a product concept or idea until you are ready for them to beat it up and see if it does what they want. Speaking to one department will not tell you much about what is needed. Different departments have different needs, and different types of departments have different needs. Paid and volunteer fire departments have different needs. Market research for public safety is not simply talking to a few of the brass or even spending time talking to folks in the field. It is about observing the way they work, riding along, studying what they do, and how they do it. THEN you can work at developing a solution to the problem. 

The year 2019 should be exciting for public safety. My wish list for 2019 includes convincing Congress to:

  1. Pass a bill to consolidate rural broadband grants
  2. Pass a bill to provide funding for Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) systems
  3. Pass a bill to leave the T-Band in place for the eleven metro areas that really need it
  4. Pass a bill to leave the public safety 4.9-GHz spectrum alone and cease trying to make the 6-GHz band into a band shared with unlicensed users
  5. Finally, I would like to see Congress, NTIA, and the FCC focus on a long-term spectrum plan that protects existing users from increased interference and keeps all of public safety’s spectrum in place

There are probably more goals but this is a good starting point. Are you ready to join in with the efforts to turn my wish list into a “done” list? Until next week…

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

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