Public Safety Advocate: Communications—The Systems Approach

BFN (Before FirstNet) and before Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), the public-safety communications world was fairly organized. A few companies offered complete systems consisting of base stations, mobiles and portables, and radio consoles. Along with their approved suppliers, they could provide antennas, coax cable, towers, generators, and other elements needed to ensure their systems were built and operated as promised.

Other vendors could and did bid on pieces and parts of systems, and many were successful in convincing some public-safety agencies to break out mobiles, portables, and sometimes base stations from system-level bids. Some Land Mobile Radio (LMR) vendors added features and functions over and above what was included in, for example, P25 standards, so competitors could not meet the same specifications with their products. Thus in the early days, the LMR vendor world was divided into system suppliers and device suppliers. 

As technologies changed, some systems suppliers sold off some components of their systems, which resulted in the emergence of more vendors to supply specific elements of a public-safety LMR system. Things were stable for a while within the LMR vendor community and then 9-1-1 was added to the mix and, again before FirstNet, many departments began using digital data services. First were data-only networks such as RAM Mobile Data, home of the first BlackBerry devices, and ARDIS, which started out as a joint Motorola and IBM vendor to enable IBM service techs to send and receive messages. Both of these systems provided data but at very low speeds (8 to 10 Kbps).

Then IBM invented Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) (this is disputed but I believe it to be true since I worked as a consultant to IBM at the time), a digital data technology Craig McCaw picked up. CDPD was capable of 19.2 Kbps and was promoted by many cellular carriers of the day including McCaw Cellular, GTE Mobilnet, Bell Atlantic, and others. The first iteration of CDPD was designed to hop around analog cellular channels that were not in use so it was claimed that CDPD would always be available in every cell site. It never did work in the hopping mode so they instead assigned analog cellular channels. Many public-safety agencies cut their “data teeth” on CDPD, RAM, or ARDIS.

As cellular systems moved from 1G to 2G to 3G, then 4G on the way to 5G, many changes were implemented to increase data speeds and network data capacities. However, it was not until LTE (4G) really took hold that public safety had access to data speeds and capabilities that supported large amounts of data, video, and images. Meanwhile, some LMR vendors had attached themselves to specific network operators. At that time, the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and then the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) were formed to convince the federal government that public safety really needed its own broadband network and that the network needed to be nationwide. 

When FirstNet became a reality in early 2012, many thought the LMR community would face hard times. While FirstNet (Built with AT&T) did not go live until 2018, it has attracted a significant number of agencies and build-out is over a year ahead of schedule. As many public-safety LMR vendors began looking at the new landscape, it became clear that the next chapter in the book of public-safety communications would call for them to remain in the driver’s seat. To this end, systems vendors would need to add back some of what they had sold off. They would also need to add new components including FirstNet/LTE devices, bridges to tie LMR and LTE together, Push-To-Talk (PTT) over FirstNet/LTE, Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), new approaches to dispatch consoles, and location services not only for calls coming into dispatch but also to track first responders in the field.

In other words, public-safety communications have progressed from analog 9-1-1 dispatch, to LMR voice dispatch, to today with some NG911 calls, video, data, and text capabilities, and dispatch over LMR voice augmented with FirstNet/LTE. During incidents, FirstNet/LTE is used to track vehicles and people, for real-time video, and so much more. With Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, drones), body and vehicle-mounted cameras, the Internet of Things (IoT), and now 5G, public-safety communications vendors must anticipate how quickly technologies, devices, software, and other elements are changing to keep up so they can retain their existing customers and entice new agencies to pay attention to their offerings. It is no longer enough to sell and service land mobile radio systems. It is almost imperative to be able to access aspects of what is quickly becoming the new public-safety communications ecosystem.

New Public-Safety Technology Vendors 

There are several ways to keep up with all the technologies, services, software, and other essentials to remain a public-safety and critical-communications systems supplier. One is to acquire smaller companies that have developed a technology a vendor believes it will need going forward. Perhaps the supplier will purchase a push-to-talk over cellular company, then a console company since it discontinued that business a few years ago, and maybe a body-camera company. How about a number of software companies? Or companies involved in Next-Generation 9-1-1

All these newly acquired companies become part of the larger public-safety communications supplier’s company. Depending on how they are integrated into one company, some of the stars from each company may be retained to oversee the product or technology. In some cases, a newly purchased company is brought in-house with personnel from the supplier’s company taking over the technology or product and hopefully integrating it into its product offerings. Now with $millions of dollars having been spent acquiring smaller companies to build more complete product offerings, what return can be expected from these investments?

One advantage to this method is that the supplier will own all or most of the technologies its customers want and need. If the smaller companies are integrated into the supplier’s company efficiently, the supplier is 100-percent responsible for the system sold to a public-safety agency or critical-communications company. To the customer, this means if issues arise during system build-out or later during its operation, finger-pointing among vendors will not be a problem and issues will be resolved more quickly.

It should be obvious to anyone involved in public-safety communications that I am talking about Motorola Solutions. Motorola has been busy acquiring companies and from what I have seen, each of these adds to its strengths as a systems supplier. In some cases, an acquisition replaces something Motorola had done itself in the past. Now that Motorola once again needs a specific capability, it has turned to outside companies. I concede that Motorola can take new offerings to market more quickly in this way and I am not saying this is not a logical and effective way to ensure it can continue to serve public-safety and critical-communications customers, but I have to wonder about the return on all these investments. 

Systems Integrators

A number of companies provide Systems Integration (SI) for public-safety projects. They generally meet with the customer and once they have an idea about what is needed, they make suggestions, after which they direct the project. I know of several projects that have worked out well and a few not so well. The outcome depends heavily on the relationship between the SI and the customer and relationships between the SI and the vendors it chooses to complete the tasks. This sometimes still ends up in finger-pointing and sometimes may not provide what the customer wants or needs. 

Smaller Vendors

Some existing LMR vendors, while smaller, have worked with other vendors to put together systems using products from several companies. This is different from a company simply buying antennas, for example, from a vendor and having them installed. In this case, even though the LMR vendor might not be a gigantic firm, it can partner with companies that can complete the project and take overall responsibility. This works best when the lead vendor continues to work with the same vendors most if not all the time and they learn how to work with each other and how to assign a prime contractor to be in charge of the job to ensure issues are handled quickly and efficiently. 

Another Model

Last week I was invited to listen to a webinar presented by the Mission Critical Alliance (MCA). My first comment is that I object to the term “Mission Critical,” but then I was not the one to name the organization. I watched and listened to the presentations, and I learned more about this organization the next day. I left this model for last because in a lot of ways it might seem to be the same as the Motorola Solutions model. However, there is a big difference. L3Harris is the lead company, and for the past year it has been working with a number of companies that have joined the MCA. The difference between what L3Harris has been doing with the MCA is that L3Harris does not purchase the other companies. Rather, they all come together as part of the MCA and work with each other.

I find it most interesting that even though members of the MCA provide many of the products and services that are needed when bidding on a systems contract, while there is some overlap in their products and services, their technologies and offerings are complementary. Further, L3Harris is not the only company that brings projects into the MCA. Each member can and does provide leads and introductions to agencies they might have worked with or for which they have provided products. While listening to MCA member presentations during the webinar, I learned about some companies I was not aware of that offer intriguing products and services.

When you look at the list of members, you may wonder about the statement that member companies’ technologies and offerings are complementary even though there is some overlap. For example, L3Harris and Tait, which you might think would be in competition, already have a marketing relationship that fits. Next is Samsung and L3Harris. Samsung is providing Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT)-compliant devices for FirstNet while L3Harris is still promoting BeOn, its own PTT over cellular. I have been told the reasons for this relationship will become evident in the future. Other MCA member companies and organizations include FirstNet (Built with AT&T), General Electric, Adashi, Centerity, Cradlepoint, Exacom, Drakontas, Mcmtech, Live Earth, RealWear, TRX Systems, Tyler, Vintra, and Zetron with more members on the horizon. 

I think all the various ways in which vendors come together to work on behalf of the public-safety community are good. I am not trying to say one model is better than another, only that they exist and I think they will be beneficial to everyone who needs critical communications. Congratulations to the Mission Critical Association! I will be talking with a number of its members over the next few weeks and will include some of their products and ideas in future issues of the Advocate

It will be interesting to follow the MCA and see what new members it attracts. Now is where I tend to get ahead of myself. In a conversation with two people who are driving MCA from within L3Harris, I suggested that if the MCA continues to grow it might become an organization of benefit to the public-safety community, FirstNet, and Push-to-talk Over Cellular (POC) companies that meet MCPTT standards as well as a few that claim they meet the standards but have not yet demonstrated they do. Perhaps the MCA could convince all PTT vendors to come together to provide true interoperability on FirstNet and to also make integration between LMR and FirstNet/LTE more of a reality.

A number of organizations are, in their own way, contributing to these goals while others still seem willing to wait for the 3GPP to come up with a standard that accomplishes PTT interoperability. I serve on Public Safety Technology Alliance (PSTA) and National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) committees working toward both LMR and FirstNet/LTE integration and PTT interoperability, and others are also working toward solving interoperability problems. However, I believe public safety would be better served if we could all work with one organization toward a standard set of goals. Perhaps the MCA is the right place to start growing a consensus or maybe it isn’t, but we do need to move faster to solve these problems. Having seven different PTT clients running on a common network begins to feel like the old LMR-only days when departments in the same city or county could not communicate with one another and we set out to establish FirstNet and solve the problem. 

I admit I have a tendency to get ahead of myself when I look at an organization such as the MCA. Perhaps we need to pull together a meeting of representatives from all public-safety-based organizations first and then deliver a document that tells vendors what the public-safety community will or will not accept in the way of interoperability. In the meantime, I know I have projected the MCA further than it is prepared to go at this point, but if we don’t propose ideas, we won’t continue to advance the technology and we certainly won’t meet the needs of the first-responder community. 

Winding Down

As I was preparing the articles to include with last week’s Advocate email, I came across a number of articles that stated BlackBerry devices are coming back. This really got my attention. Before BlackBerry, RadioMail was the first wireless email company and it was struggling to survive. I helped RadioMail continue to operate by convincing Motorola to kick in some funds. RadioMail used a “road warrior” kit packaged in a leather case that included an HP-95LX handheld computer, an Ericsson Mobidem, and software on the HP-95LX. 

Ericsson Mobidem on RAM Data Network
RadioMail Road Warrior Kit: Mobidem and HP 95LX

This first wireless email system was a “fetch” system with which I could forward my email from Outlook to RadioMail, but I had to have a separate address at RadioMail. As such, when I did not receive a response right away after sending an email from aseybold@radiomail.com and I turned off my device, I would not see the response until the next time I logged back into RadioMail. Even so, RadioMail gave us email on the road for the first time. In an article I published in my Andrew Seybold Outlook on Mobile Computing newsletter entitled the “Two Mailbox Problem,” I described the issue in detail and few weeks later I received a phone call inviting me to come to Waterloo, Canada. I flew up and met with the two Research In Motion founders and was treated to a discussion about how they could solve the issue I had dubbed the two-mailbox problem. I agreed to work with them and as we know, they did succeed in solving the problem. 

The First Blackberry was called an “interactive pager”

The first BlackBerries resembled pagers but they were two-way devices and they worked with Microsoft Outlook, both inbound and outbound. The RadioMail system pushed email to the BlackBerry as it arrived. I was given a beta device and an account, I put the BlackBerry on my belt, and until a few years ago, I never used anything but a BlackBerry. I even used Android BlackBerry devices but they were not the same. Previous BlackBerries had a very SMART keyboard, and I am hoping this new company from Texas will rebirth a true BlackBerry and that one of its first goals will be to submit one to FirstNet (Built with AT&T) to be certified for use on the FirstNet network. 

I was not ready for BlackBerry to simply disappear but I was, honestly, disappointed in the two devices made in China that were based on the Android OS. I understand the expected devices will also be Android-based but I trust they will be better than the last two. I am waiting impatiently for the new offerings.

Blackberries though the Years

This has been another busy week for many. In addition to fires, hurricanes, and of course Covid-19, the first IWCE Virtual Conference was held this week. I found it to be well done as I listened to a number of the keynotes, moderated two panels, browsed the virtual exhibit hall, and visited a number of venders and a hug-out in the virtual Attendees and Networking section. I have participated in IWCE Conferences for many years and they have always been one of my favorite yearly events. For the past two years, I have served on the IWCE advisory board and have learned how the conferences are planned and executed. 

However, this year’s conference has been quite different since it had to be virtual due to the corona virus pandemic. It is amazing to me that this is the first time the organizers of the IWCE conference and several others I have attended virtually had never before put together a virtual event. I think they have done a splendid job, especially the IWCE. The one issue I have encountered is that being three hours earlier here in Phoenix than all the virtual conferences so far, which have been on an Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) schedule, I find myself having to start my day earlier than normal. This Thursday, the day this Advocate is being published, I plan to attend the RCA “breakfast” because the event will feature Carroll Hollingsworth, RCA President, having a discussion with (Ret.) Chief Harlin McEwen, the father of FirstNet, and John Facella who has for a number of years been putting together the RCA Technical Symposium that is held in conjunction with the RCA annual banquet.  

For those of us whose clocks are three hours behind the 9:00 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) starts, it means brewing our first cup of coffee at o’dark-thirty and sitting down to join the RCA breakfast at 6:00 a.m. Mountain Standard Time (MST) or Pacific Daylight Time (PDT)! I hope many of you have taken part in the Virtual IWCE 2020 Conference and, again, my congratulations to all those who worked so hard to make this virtual conference the huge success it was. 

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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2 Comments on "Public Safety Advocate: Communications—The Systems Approach"

  1. John Contestabil | August 27, 2020 at 10:14 am | Reply

    Spot on once again Andy! The big takeaway is that the public safety communications world is no longer simply an LMR system….with all the Comms and wireless transport paths available, public safety agencies need to develop technology roadmaps on how to cope with all this diversity…in the future, integration of these platforms [to at least some degree] will need to happen in order to leverage the data they have as an agency [as well as what is out there on the internet] to deliver situational awareness…and this means solving the data interoperability problem…good to see consortiums like MCA come together who can take a vendor agnostic holistic approach….

  2. thanks John it is becoming a much more complex world and as NG9-1-1 continues to grow, and the interfaces between incoming and dispatched calls are put in place, we do need lots of different companies with lots of different technologies to make this all happen, and at the same time we need to make sure we don’t create a finger pointing set of obstacles to fixing problems and glitches.

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