Public Safety Advocate: Critical LTE Communications Forum and More

This week’s Advocate is late since I attended and took part in the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) Critical LTE Communications Forum. There were about 200 folks in attendance, all with a keen interest in broadband communications for public safety. The sessions were great for the most part but there were occasional topics where some speakers presented information or ideas that were simply wrong or conveyed advances as coming much faster than they actually will.

For some reason, neither FirstNet (Built by AT&T) nor the FirstNet Authority had any sponsorship or participation. However, there were FirstNet folks in the audience. This lack of FirstNet visibility allowed the first keynote by Verizon to contain comments that could have and should have been countered by FirstNet. These issues included sharing networks, how soon Verizon’s Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (PTT) would come to its network, and then a plea for states to include a statement in their policy that would make it mandatory for full network interoperability.

Verizon’s take on Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk was that it would roll it out in 2019. Then, in the same sentence, stated this would soon be followed by off-network LTE or Proximity Services (ProSe). Neither of these statements is based on actual fact and later in the day during the PTT panel (see below), I finally heard that the first iteration of Mission-Critical PTT was nothing more than a first-generation product and it would be years before all the kinks had been worked out.

As for off-network PTT, or ProSe as it is called for proximity services, the specs may find their way into becoming a standard but the results will not be anything near what is needed by public safety for off-network communications. The Samsung director of public safety gave a keynote on the second day (see below) and he, too, talked about Mission-Critical PTT and ProSe as done deals. Samsung says it has baked them into its chipsets. This may be an advantage for Samsung, but it means that the bulk of the rest of the devices that are using Qualcomm chips will not have the same capabilities.

After his speech, I went up to him and questioned him on ProSe and if he understood what the real requirements were for off-network. I explained to him and others that in order to be a contender for off-network communications, the off-network element must work both in network coverage and out of network coverage. The ultimate test for me was to have one unit outside a building at street level and another in the sub-basement and for them to be able to communicate with each other DIRECTLY, not with relay devices between the two. He got the point quickly and I hope others come to understand that ProSe with 250-MW devices won’t come even close to what public safety requires.

Since I am talking about PTT here, on the second day there was a Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk round table. Motorola, Verizon Wireless, The Critical Communications Association (TCCA), and Samsung took part. There was a lot of talk about the 3GPP standard for Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk and during the roundtable, the TCCA representative talked about the plug-fest for PTT held in Texas earlier this year and how there were more than thirty different PTT groups competing with each other. In a conversation I had with him later, I asked how many of these would actually end up on FirstNet and he said all of them could co-exist. I said that sounded like a bad way to keep interoperability in the forefront of the broadband network’s mission and he disagreed.

Once again, I was not happy with all the talk about how soon Mission-Critical PTT would make its way onto networks. When I review the specifications, I am not convinced that in its final form it will provide all the features and functions that are in use today on P-25 systems. Time will tell, but in the meantime, many departments are being hammered by elected officials over their funding of both LMR and FirstNet systems. There is still a misconception that once Mission-Critical PTT is launched, the need for LMR systems goes away. As many of us keep saying, this is not the case. LMR is the lifeline of the public safety community and will remain so for many years.

Another comment made during the PTT panel was about how PTT over LTE or PTT on FirstNet would be used and the presenter totally missed the major advantage to having PTT on FirstNet, which is interoperability during multi jurisdictional incidents where it can provide a valuable common PTT platform for all of the agencies when their LMR systems are on different bands or use different technologies. Tying LMR to FirstNet should be a high priority, but again, it appeared to me as though the panel was fine with waiting for 3GPP to finalize the specifications for connecting the different technologies. My problem with 3GPP is that it doesn’t really understand the needs of the public safety community nor does it really care very much since its main purpose is to work on standards that will be adopted by all of the carriers, not simply a few public safety users.

Back to Day One

There was a session on the LTE Ecosystem Update: devices, accessories, and applications. During this panel, the Samsung representative talked about some advances made by Samsung that are really interesting, but then he said that with his device a police officer could take a driver’s license, take a picture of it, and gather all of the details. This is a two-handed operation and I don’t know of a single law enforcement officer who would stand next to a car he or she had stopped and use both hands to hold a device and the license to take a picture of it. To be blunt, I said to him after the panel that what he described was a dead law enforcement person. If companies plan to build products for the public safety market, it would be prudent on their part to make sure what they believe the public safety community needs is what public safety personnel believe they need and how they perform their tasks.

Other issues covered on day one included cybersecurity, Internet of Things (IoT) Analytics for Critical LTE, and Critical LTE’s Importance to Smart Cities and IoT. All of these were well done. The speakers were outstanding experts in the various fields and I, for one, learned a lot. During the breaks, many of us crossed the hall to the display room where many companies had set up table-tops and were talking to many of the attendees. IWCE was smart to put the snacks and goodies out in that room since it drew more people who then had an opportunity to look around at the multiplicity of vendors and their offerings.

Moving to Day Two

Day two started with three keynotes. The first was given by a director of product and application line management for Harris who was well received. Harris is one of the few companies that has spent a lot of time developing radios that incorporate multiple LMR bands and broadband including Band 14. These radios are the same size as most LMR portables but with the added benefit of FirstNet or Verizon broadband capabilities. The company has worked long and hard on the Harris XL-200 multi-band radio user interface and it is easy to use.

The next keynote was presented by Samsung’s director of public sales and solutions and was really interesting for a number of reasons. First, Samsung, unlike most handset vendors, makes its own chipsets so it is able to bake-in a number of things, including PTT, which makes it work better. Next, it is deeply involved in the public safety network in South Korea, and third, it has some very cool technology.

He spent some time talking about Samsung’s embedded encryption and then talked about and showed a video of a vehicle touch screen. When you enter your vehicle, you slide your Samsung phone into a cradle, which I have to assume can also connect to external antennas but I have not validated this. Once the device is in the cradle, the touch screen and keyboard in the vehicle function like a Mobile Data Terminal (MDT). Since the computing power in a smartphone is capable of driving all this, the result is a much less expensive in-car system.

I only have two concerns about this type of device. It saves money for sure, and it is slick technology. However, once again, it is a Samsung-only product so we are going back to the bad old days of LMR where one company made sure no one else’s device is compatible. Lastly, this does not give the vehicle a touch screen tablet that can be removed and used by an incident commander.

Next up was a keynote by Cradlepoint, a maker of mobile modems that is now deeply involved in 5G as it is rolled out. Cradlepoint provides a strong portfolio of products including a dual (or more) Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) modem for in-vehicle. I have found a number of departments making use of this modem with a FirstNet SIM for primary broadband and a second SIM for a second network for redundancy. In the case of the second SIM, the departments are entering into an as-needed data service agreement instead of having to pay a second monthly charge.

Next up was the Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk panel mentioned above. I only wish that on panels such as this there was some representation of public safety users to talk about what is really needed and the reality of how long it takes public safety to come to trust new technology. What we hear on these panels is from people who are invested in making sure users want the new technologies and since most of those on the panels are either vendors or consultants, sometimes the information they provide is clouded with their desire to prove they have the best product or service to offer.

There were other sessions but one of my favorites is the tech lightening round. This year it featured ESChat PTT and Cubic Mission Solutions. It is amazing to me how much information can be conveyed by slides and orally during a six-minute fast-pitched presentation and both vendors did a great job.

There was a session on measuring LTE networks for reliability and coverage, and the closing section was entitled, “Future Tech,” and was very good with Harris County providing the basis for what it is doing, and the City of Chicago fire department talking about its use of technology and its needs. This was interesting because it has accumulated more data on buildings, infrastructure, and other items than any other department in the city. It is using Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a training tool to teach students about the dangers of fires and much more. The other two presenters added more about analytics and what will be possible in the future. In all, it was a good way to end the day and the room was still full of interested people.

My Estimation

Perhaps I have given the impression that the event was full of mis-information. This was not the case, about 90-percent of what was delivered was great information and was absorbed by the attendees, while the issues I have mentioned above are, of course, some of my hot buttons. I wish FirstNet had been on the agenda, and yes, I was put off by Verizon’s keynote. I have known the speaker for many years and he is a very qualified presenter having served within public safety for years in many different ways. However, the Verizon pitch was too much of a promotion of its capabilities and, honestly, the fact that it never showed up to bid on FirstNet and keeps saying it supports public safety but did not need the spectrum does not sit well with me.

Early on in our quest for FirstNet, both AT&T and Verizon were involved and supportive and then after FirstNet was born, Verizon went away but AT&T stayed the course working with FirstNet, presenting at events, hosting events, and earning the trust of the public safety community. When the RFP was awarded to AT&T and is now FirstNet (Built by AT&T), it was a game changer because it includes ALL of the AT&T LTE spectrum plus Band 14 and enabled FirstNet to go live years ahead of what would have been possible if a Band 14-only bidder had won.

It is clear that Verizon has a lot of interest in public safety, now, after a hiatus of not being involved. Further, I have to wonder why it is interested now when it stopped providing 9-1-1 systems and support. Verzion continues to push for being able to make use of multiple networks for public safety. In reality, some departments are using Verizon for back-up with FirstNet as their main providers, but we do have other networks. They are called LMR and they are not going anywhere anytime soon.

Winding Down

I really like events such as the IWCE Critical LTE Communications Forum. They are small enough that meeting people and having discussions and learning is easier than at a large event. One of the most important ways in which vendors can decide what products to bring to market is to spend time talking to those who will be using them or deciding to use them in their department. This event is a perfect environment for this type of research and for learning what is occurring in a multiplicity of different areas that all have an effect on public safety communications.

So, congrats to IWCE for a job well done and a thank you to all those who took part in keynotes and panels. It was worth the trip to cold and windy Chicago! Now I am on to the FirstNet Association meeting in Denver next week followed by the Radio Club of America board meeting, technical symposium, and yearly banquet and awards dinner.

Let’s take the issue of Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk slowly and wait and see what it turns into and if it really is what public safety wants on FirstNet. After all, FirstNet is being built for public safety—it is the result of a lot of work by a lot of people for a lot of years. Let’s make sure whatever runs on FirstNet is what public safety really wants and needs. If we can do that, FirstNet will meet the vision we had starting many years ago.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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