I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and remembered to thank those who worked through the holiday to keep us safe.
What Is a Communications Hub?
Descriptions found in Google and several other search engines infer that the terms “hub” and “router” can be used interchangeably.
However, I believe there are significant differences between the two. When a router receives a radio signal, it sends it out to multiple destinations. Typically, the only action the router takes is to connect wireless connection ‘A’ to wireless connection ‘B’.
On the other hand, a hub is where everything comes together. It is usually a smart device that is capable of directing multiple types of wireless and/or wired connectivity. The idea of any hub is to collect (receive) multiple forms of voice and data and send them either to another hub closer to the incident, directly to the incident commander, or to a command vehicle at an incident.
The hub can receive and forward data that comes over WiFi and Bluetooth, and from body cameras that can be triggered in situations such as when a pistol is drawn. Vehicles become hubs for laptops, and the vitals/status of both the officer and the vehicle can be collected.
The hub ensures that the appropriate, best use connection is made to the next point down the line. More importantly, the hub has the intelligence it takes to manage multiple communications systems and to make sure each system is put to its optimal use.
What Makes Up a Hub
According to this definition, a hub can be a physical device or software. Some elements I consider hubs include, for example, the entire FirstNet (Built with AT&T) network, emergency communications centers, and dispatch or precinct centers. Other types of hubs will be used more and more over time, and more hubs will be added to today’s public safety communications systems.
What prompted me to look into hubs was that they are widely used but many people don’t understand what makes up a hub and what purpose they serve. They can be physical devices or, for example, vehicles equipped with multiple modes of communications gear including computers and tablets, WiFi bubbles for use around the vehicle, perhaps a dashboard camera, and a link to officers in the field who are wearing body cameras. As we move forward, there will be more and more equipment in vehicles that even track information about their need for an oil change or some other issue with the vehicle.
A vehicle that is already in the field with a single Land Mobile Radio (LMR) and perhaps a computer or tablet might be considered the makings of a vehicle hub. Some vehicles will have more communications and sensor capabilities than others, and as the vendor community continues to publicize their products, I am quite sure more and more types of communications and sensors will end up in public safety vehicles.
From the vehicle hub, it is possible to move up through and to the broadband network as well as down to individuals in the field. Those at an incident who are away from their vehicle may be wearing a video camera, a land mobile radio microphone, and a broadband device. We have seen many related products exhibited at shows and as we move forward, we will also be seeing a variety of sensors that will enable individuals to monitor their body conditions and perhaps a command vehicle acting as a temporary hub at the scene.
Going from one vehicle to the next, which perhaps could be providing multiple hubs, we see that the vehicle can communicate with a temporary hub at the scene, a dispatch center or Emergency Communications Center (ECC), and other hubs. I have not yet addressed a broadband network as the primary hub in this discussion because in many cases the network will already be communicating with these.
Hubs have been used in various forms for a number of years and are not new within the public safety community. The idea of any hub is to receive multiple forms of voice and data and either forward them to another hub closer to the incident, or directly to the incident commander, another command vehicle that might be at the incident, etc.
Today, public safety communications include multiple hubs and there will be more. For example, we can start with a Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) ECC. This hub receives input from citizens who need assistance. Unlike today, citizens are or will be able to report the problem using voice (as most dispatch centers do today), text, video, and still pictures. The ECC, in turn, processes the request and delivers it to the appropriate agency. Within that agency, preplanned units will be dispatched.
I consider the FirstNet/broadband network to be an overlay hub for all forms of broadband communications. This overlay hub is capable of providing information to those who need it, regardless of where they are within the United States.
There are many more examples of hubs that are already in use and there are many articles about upcoming modes of communications that will require hubs.
The broadband network can be interconnected with other communications systems including fixed or mobile satellite, incident command locations, command vehicles, and many others. I think one of the most important types of hubs are being installed to provide crossover communications between FirstNet and existing LMR systems.
In only a few short years, the public safety community has progressed from LMR devices that provided one-to-many communications but little else, to digital LMR systems, many of which are already part of a hub or group of hubs. Hubs will continue to play an ever-increasing role in public safety communications.
Many companies are developing, selling, and installing what might be considered hubs in the network. People involved in these processes need to keep in mind that all of this technology is part of under-the-hood communications. All this new technology is able to move voice and other data from one place to another quickly and easily. At the same time, the hub must make sure all the data arrives at its destination in a format that is usable by the person who receives it. Those in the field who are providing a multitude of public safety services don’t need to know that their vehicle, turnout gear, or anything else they might need on the job is either already connected to a hub or series of hubs, or will be connected to a hub over the next few years.
As FirstNet (Built with AT&T) rolls out LTE (4G), it is also providing new 5G communications services for the public safety community. After reviewing available information, it appears that as 5G continues to be deployed, and more in-building communications become available, there will be more and more hubs. The proliferation of hubs will help those who build and install the equipment to better understand the equipment and to pass their knowledge on to those in the field. This is made simpler when a new feature or function can be introduced without mention of a hub, router, or other device.
FirstNet has accomplished a great deal in a few years. It continues to add more users, devices, and applications. Even so, neither FirstNet the network, nor the FirstNet Authority, is ready to say the network is finished, folks! Again, I have never seen a network that was considered finished, and I do not believe for a minute that FirstNet will claim to be the first. We have been through some very exciting times. But wait! There is much more to come.
We will be providing additional information on some the elements that make up the FirstNet broadband network. As we do, it is our intention to present information in such a way that the public safety community will have a basic understanding of how and why things work in the communications world.
Next week, we will be looking at devices, how many are being carried by officers in the field, and what they want for tomorrow. This will lead us to a discussion of some new 5G standards that will provide better communications for both public safety and commercial users.
The FirstNet success story
When the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN), now known as FirstNet (Built with AT&T), was signed into law, there were a number of points to consider as the project moved forward. Among these are the following expectations:
- We would have a successful public/private partnership
- that would be self-funding.
- The contractor would make a profit
- as would the FirstNet Authority.
In turn, the Authority would invest some of its profits to enable continued enhancement of the network.
The FirstNet contractor (AT&T), and the FirstNet Authority, are part of the federal government but were granted a level of independence most federal agencies do not have. The idea was to form a public/private partnership and, in this case, perhaps the largest in existence within the United States. I have to give those who worked so hard to form and maintain this partnership the highest marks possible.
Going through the other points, you will see that in every case the combination of the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has succeeded in meeting every one of these objectives and more. As of this week, there are more than 4 million users on the FirstNet network, and the number of subscribers continues to grow on a monthly basis.
When FirstNet was announced, and when the contract was awarded in 2017, it was made clear to everyone that while the states were required to opt in or out of their portion of the network build, there would be no pressure on local agencies to join the network. As of today, the numbers for FirstNet operation have been achieved because of a few things:
First was the dedication of many members of the public safety community, its vendors, consultants, and even members of organizations such as the nationwide mayors’ organization.
That was the starting point. Beyond that, the success of FirstNet and its continued growth can be attributed to both the FirstNet Authority and AT&T (the FirstNet contractor) having dedicated some of their people to the FirstNet project and hiring new people from the public safety community. FirstNet is not about competing with commercial networks, it is about providing the public safety community with the best possible communications tools available. There have been some glitches, delays and, of course, the normal, to-be-expected grousing about network buildout, coverage, and other issues surrounding the network. Even so, as of today, and considering the progress that is or is not being made in the rest of the world, I believe we hit the right spot at the right time with the right people for the right reasons.
Until next week…
Andrew M Seybold
©2022, Andrew Seybold, Inc.