It is common knowledge that over the past five years the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) have built the only nationwide public-safety broadband network and made it available to all first-responder agencies that opt in to FirstNet. Many new communications tools for first responders have come about as the network has matured but these advances seem to have been taken for granted and they have not received as much attention as they deserve. (Here, “Tools” obviously does not refer to hoses, axes, side-arms, or the like. These tools are hardware and software used primarily on FirstNet.)
Some of these tools began as ideas that were hatched at either the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) facility that is part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) located in Boulder, Colo., or they were first reviewed and tested at the FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab, also in Boulder.
The vast majority of these new tools have come directly from the vendor community though some ideas have been suggested by FirstNet (Built with AT&T) or perhaps first responders who had an idea for a new tool they believed would be useful.
Before delving into these new tools, let’s look at where we are today:
We have FirstNet, the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) and have and will continue to have Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems on a local, regional, and even countywide basis.
This is a great start, but now that we have this network, it is time to focus on what will enhance use of FirstNet and assist first responders.
My List of What Is Needed
We need Nationwide Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG11). Places that have already implemented NG911 include the state of California, some cities in middle America, and some on the East Coast. However, we need NG911 to be ubiquitous so the public will know they can use voice, text, images, and video when reporting an incident to the Emergency Communications Center (ECC). This in turn, will enable dispatch to send this information to responding units so they have a better idea of what they are heading into. Once we have nationwide NG911 deployed and, in a sense, integrated with FirstNet, our first responders will have more detailed information than ever.
Next on my list is to finally have Unified Push-To-Talk (PTT) across FirstNet and integrated with LMR systems. Unified PTT will enable our first responders to talk to anyone responding to an incident or anyone they need to communicate with, no matter where they are located and regardless of whether they are using FirstNet or their LMR system for push-to-talk.
Today there are more than one-hundred certified software applications in the FirstNet store, and agencies can/are using other applications if they prefer. What we are lacking at the moment is a way to send data to any other agency, ECC, or first responder and know it will appear on their FirstNet devices. Of all the issues we still need to spend time and money on, this will be the most difficult to tackle.
While the industry is working on the items above, and vendors are working on new devices and applications, let’s take a look at communications tools we have today.
The first devices to appear on FirstNet were hardened phones from Sonim. Even though Sonim came out of nowhere, and was not known as a smartphone supplier, it built what many still consider the best hardened smartphone on FirstNet.
Sonim was followed by existing smartphone companies. As I have written before, had FirstNet been a standalone Band-14-only network we would not have all the devices we have today. If AT&T had not opened up all its existing LTE spectrum to public safety with full priory and pre-emption, it is doubtful that we would have the more than one-hundred FirstNet-approved devices to choose from with more being announced every day.
Before FirstNet, many public-safety vehicles had a laptop computer mounted in the vehicle’s cab and dispatch and other information was received on them. Many agencies still use laptops and Panasonic, which pioneered hardened laptops with built in-broadband, offers FirstNet-Certified hardened notebooks as well. Many other vendor’s tablets are also certified for FirstNet. Mounted in a vehicle, tablets are easily removed so the Incident Commander can see who is responding and perhaps receive videos of the scene and much more. These are all fairly standard communications tools and many of them came from the commercial market.
Other devices began to show up on FirstNet as well. For example, we began to see vehicular routers from Sierra Wireless, Cradlepoint, and Peplink being certified. These devices are designed to be mounted in a vehicle and they provide two different important new tools. First, they enable any and all devices within the vehicle that need access to FirstNet to simply be connected to the router. Second, most mobile routers can create a Wi-Fi bubble around the vehicle so a number of first responders can use Wi-Fi on their smartphones to access FirstNet through the vehicle’s router and external antenna to provide better data connectivity.
If you view the mobile router as a communications hub, as have a number of vendors, the router can be used as part of a ubiquitous communications system. Some vendors offer in-vehicle connectivity for both LMR and FirstNet. The system is smart enough to direct traffic over the best network connection available. If the vehicle is out of LMR range but within FirstNet range, the LMR PTT will be routed over FirstNet. If you are out of range of both LMR and FirstNet, another option would be to outfit the vehicle with a mobile satellite system on the roof and both LMR and FirstNet would be back-hauled over the satellite connection and then joined to the appropriate network.
I have often written about the next two devices because they are game-changers (Assured Wireless and Airgain). Known as High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) or, as FirstNet (Built with AT&T) calls them, “MegaRange™” devices, they are capable of operating on all LTE spectrum available to public-safety FirstNet users. When a vehicle is in range of a Band-14 cell site, these devices are permitted by both the 3GPP and FCC to transmit at a much higher power level than standard wireless broadband devices. Standard broadband devices are limited to 0.25 watts while the MegaRange Band-14 power level can be up to 1.25 watts, which is a huge increase. The benefits of this higher power are that it extends the range of the Band-14 cell site by as much as 80-percent and it provides much faster data rates from the vehicle back to the network. Because of power and heat considerations, MegaRange devices are only available for vehicles, but some vendors are working on more portable and mobile MegaRange devices, so stay tuned.
You may have heard about the Z-Axis but don’t know what it is or why it, too, is a game-changer. Today, GPS and cellular networks can provide X and Y coordinates to locate a device to within a few feet in the right circumstances. A significant issue for first responders, especially those in the fire service, is that using these two coordinates does not provide a clue as to what floor someone is on in a building. The Z-axis adds the height dimension that indicates which floor and perhaps even where on that floor the person is. FirstNet has chosen NextNav to provide the Z-Axis information and Polaris says it can provide Z-Axis data.
This tool is currently available to first responders on FirstNet, however, several companies are working on making the Z-Axis available to 9-1-1 incoming calls, thereby providing a much more exact location. It should be noted that, at this point, Z-Axis information is limited to metro areas and is not designed to provide Z-Axis information once outside the metro area.
We are also seeing a number of devices that are designed to work on both LMR and FirstNet. Handheld devices are available from Motorola and L3Harris, and L3Harris has also built FirstNet into its multi-band LMR. There is a caveat here. While these hybrid devices do have FirstNet, at this time they do not support FirstNet applications on Android or iOS (Apple) operating systems. However, Motorola has developed a non-FirstNet multi-band handheld that includes digital Mobile Radio (DMR) and full-up Android FirstNet capability. Watch this space as well.
Just before IWCE, I was introduced to a different type of FirstNet device. The Siyata SD-7 is not a smartphone, it is classified as an Internet Of Things (IOT) device. It doesn’t have big screen, in fact, the screen on the top of the device is text-based and it is designed to move from one PTT group to another. The SD-7 is a little larger than a pager, it has a PTT and an Emergency button, and it includes both Wi-Fi and broadband. This device is FirstNet-Certified and it makes a great pager (if in range of FirstNet or Wi-Fi). It also supports Motorola’s Enhanced PTT and ESChat’s PTT, and the audio level is higher than any smartphone I have heard. The Siyata SD-7 is an ideal solution for anyone who needs to stay in touch but does not need a full-up smartphone. The folks at Siyata have also developed a speaker/mic, and for all older radio heads, it has an in-vehicle “convertacom” in which you can insert the SD-7. It connects to the vehicle’s power, an amplified speaker, and it can connect to other devices.
As can be expected, especially since FirstNet has been a huge success for local, regional, statewide and federal users, the vendor community is working on new devices, new IoT sensors, and different types of body-worn cameras. Several companies are building combination phones that include all the features of body-worn cameras.
It is interesting to reflect on how commercial cellular devices are sold in the high millions of units and public-safety-specific devices and applications have a much smaller potential market, yet we are seeing vendors doing two things. The first is to build their mass-market devices to also be FirstNet-approved, and the second is that a number of vendors are working on devices and applications that are applicable to both the first-responder community and those who consider their wireless communications to be critical communications.
One thing is certain. FirstNet has driven the vendor community to respond to first responders with new devices and applications and they will continue to enable first responders with more communications tools. Hopefully, vendors will remember that they are building tools that will be used by first responders, not radio heads. To me, this means vendors need to listen to both FirstNet and the public-safety community and not rush out and develop a wiz-bang product that does not address the needs of the public-safety community.
If we continue down this path, we might reach the point where all networks used by public safety are IP-based and have been put together to be a set of smart networks. Then, perhaps, we can put them all together in a single device and someone in the field does not have to do anything but pick it up and use it. All the voice and data a user needs will be delivered automatically over the appropriate network.
A few months back I wrote an article for Mission Critical Magazine that I later reprinted as a Public Safety Advocate. The article was about joining NG911, FirstNet, and LMR with a common-IP dedicated back-end. Doing so would open up many opportunities for new communications tools. For example, I would like to see someone implement my vision of a smart device running on a set of smart networks going back to the days when it was much easier for first responders to operate their communications devices.
Many of these devices have become overloaded with features and functions that might rarely be used. We all know if a feature is not used for a while, most of the time when it is needed, users don’t remember how to call up and use that particular feature or function. When I was first in the field of radio (now “wireless”), things were fairly simple. When dispatch or an IC said to go to channel four, those in the field turned the knob on top of the radio back to its stop position (channel 1), counted three clicks forward, and knew without looking that they were on the correct channel.
Since then, devices have become a whole lot more sophisticated and first responders are now able to send and receive more than PTT voice. They can also send text, telco, images, video, and data. I hope at some point we can find a way to put all these tools into the hands of our first responders without them being overwhelmed by all the features. Today, the young people who join the ranks are teaching the old guard how to use a smartphone and in turn, the youngsters are teaching the old guard how to operate an LMR radio.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2022, Andrew Seybold, Inc.