After the article about the lack of data interoperability across the FirstNet (Built with AT&T) network appeared last week in the Advocate, I received comments indicating that serious work has indeed been undertaken to address this issue. I hope to be able to provide more information in coming weeks.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been busy. After its September meeting, it appears that a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) for the 4.9-GHz spectrum will be released for comments. The FCC will also act on the 6-GHz sharing of licensed microwave with unlicensed Wi-Fi 6 users.
9/11 Commission Report
Last weekend saw observances of the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Everyone remembers where they were that day and the emotions they experienced. We were also aware of the terrible loss of life among citizens and New York Fire Department and Police Department personnel. The 20-year anniversary ceremonies were tasteful and impressive, and they brought back many deep-seated memories.
It is difficult to say anything positive came out of what happened that day. However, the after-action reports did bring to light the
that prevented fire and police from being able to coordinate their communications and to warn first responders already inside the towers of immediate danger.
These reports were widely circulated in the press, which helped make citizens and elected officials aware of what public safety had known for many years. Because public-safety radio spectrum has been allocated over a span of many years, agencies have been assigned to very different portions of spectrum. As a result, it was difficult or impossible to communicate from one agency to another. While this was apparent during and immediately following the attack, communications issues became more evident as agency after agency responded to assist. At the same time, citizens were unable to access cell-phone systems surrounding Ground Zero.
The public became aware of this lack of interoperability between agencies during the Oklahoma bombing when local, state, and federal agencies responding to the incident were unable to communicate with each other to coordinate their activities. In response, a plea was sent out over local broadcast stations asking citizens not to use their cell phones so public safety could access the cellular systems to coordinate activities.
The was issued in 2002 and it put forth several recommendations, one of which was to solve the problem of the lack of interoperability that had plagued first responders. Several more incidents after 9/11 contributed to the growing awareness of the communications problems public safety experiences on a regular basis.
During hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and an earthquake in northern Virginia, even those in Washington DC could not make cell-phone calls. The cellular networks remained operational, but they were overloaded with too many people trying to place calls and send text messages.
Because there were so many communications problems during all these incidents, the public-safety community realized that in order to resolve this problem, it needed to step up and bring these issues before the various federal agencies. The first of several organizations to answer the call were the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), and APCO International, which continue to be made up of public-safety professionals involved in communications and dispatch, and the Public Safety Alliance (PSA), a new organization.
All these organizations and more came together to chart a course to provide nationwide interoperability for public safety. It took a concentrated effort, and finally in February 2012, a law was enacted to create FirstNet and provide some seed funding to come from future spectrum auctions.
The FirstNet Authority (the Authority) was formed under the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA), which is part of the Department of Commerce (DOC). In the beginning, FirstNet consisted of only a Board of Directors with some directors coming from the public-safety community. All of the members played an active role in the pursuit of a law for creation of FirstNet and an additional 700-MHz of broadband spectrum for the network.
It took the Authority several years to become a viable organization with a board, then contractors, and then employees. The Authority was charged with putting together a public/private partnership in which a private company would be contracted to build, operate, and maintain a nationwide broadband network to deliver interoperability throughout all fifty states and the six territories.
Finally, in 2017, a contract was awarded to AT&T, which became the private side of the partnership. Provisions in the law allowed any state or territory to opt out of FirstNet providing it would build out its portion of the network itself and that its build-out would be fully interoperable and compatible with the FirstNet network. As it turned out, all 50 states and the territories opted into FirstNet by the end of 2017. It should be noted that when a state opted in, it did not mean every agency within the state would be required to join FirstNet. Agencies were free to choose if and when to join.
Fast forward to today and we find that AT&T is well ahead of the first five-year buildout. In addition to the 20 MHz of 700-MHz public-safety spectrum, A&T has given FirstNet users full access to all its LTE spectrum and future 5G spectrum. The FirstNet network has its own core (brains) and while some of the spectrum is shared with citizens and businesses, when called for, the 20 MHz of public-safety spectrum is restricted to public-safety use. FirstNet also provides full priority access and preemption for first responders so they can use the network even when it is congested.
More enhancements will be made to the network and even after the five-year buildout requirement is met, AT&T and the FirstNet Authority will continue improving the network and adding capabilities to better serve the public-safety community.
It may have taken a long time since 9/11 to fulfill the last of the 9/11 Commission’s requirements, but the nationwide interoperable public-safety broadband network is now in place and being used by more than 17,000 agencies with more than 2 million individual users.
The FCC is preparing to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking following the stay order it executed to halt the previous FCC’s rulemaking that would strip the public-safety community of its exclusive use of 50 MHz of broadband spectrum at 4.9 GHz. The previous FCC asserted that public safety was not using the spectrum efficiently and passed a ruling to allocate it to the states. Each state would be able to enter into a master lease agreement with a company or organization that could then sublease the spectrum for any and all types of uses. A way to protect public-safety users from interference was included, but it was not well-defined.
The public-safety community has come together once again, this time to oppose this ruling under the umbrella of the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA). Several comments were filed after the previous FCC moved forward with its plan to give the spectrum to the states and the PSSA filed a request for a stay, which was granted by the new FCC. At this point, the FCC created a new notice of proposed rulemaking that is much more favorable to the public-safety community. This proposed rulemaking will go out for comments from interested parties then, based on input from the comments, the FCC could act on the rulemaking.
In the interim, public safety is fully engaged. There will be coordination among the various public-safety organizations to ensure the public-safety community will once again be speaking with a common voice, and comments will be filed.
According to Alan Tilles, a well-known public-safety attorney, “The FCC has released a draft Public Notice which begins the process of authorizing standard-power unlicensed operation in the 6 GHz band by inviting proposals from any party interested in operating an Automatic Frequency Control (AFC) system in the band, as provided for in the Report & Order.” (https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-375609A1.pdf)
This indicates to me that the FCC is not placing much credence in the well-documented tests previously run by the Energy Innovation Reform Project (EIRP) in conjunction with Southern Company that found interference issues between indoor Wi-Fi 6 and existing licensed microwave users that, for the most part, use their microwave systems for backhaul and control of critical-communications services and systems.
Whether “Automated Frequency Control” (AFC) systems will in fact prevent interference to existing microwave users remains to be seen. As I have said before, finding an unlicensed device that is interfering with a licensed critical-communications microwave system is extremely difficult. And if the EIRP tests are correct, any interference that is generated will probably be generated by more than one device. Based on the information provided by the EIRP and Southern Company, I have to hope the FCC will tread carefully when considering whether to approve unlicensed systems to be located with critical-communications microwave systems. It is much more difficult to undo a new rulemaking than it is to test, test, and test again to eliminate as many potential causes of interference as possible in real-world situations.
The lack of interoperability has been an issue for public-safety Land Mobile Radio (LMR) for many years. My first experience with the inability for agencies to communicate with each other was during a fire in the late 1960s when I was a member of a volunteer fire department just outside Philadelphia. We were called to a house fire as a third alarm since the house was adjacent to other structures that could easily become involved in the fire. When we arrived, our Fire Chief met with the first-in Fire Chief who asked us to work in tandem with two other engines to provide an additional water source since there was only one hydrant in the neighborhood. The next available hydrant was in an industrial complex across a huge parking lot. In order to provide a good flow of water, the three engines had to work together. The first engine pumped water from the fire hydrant to the second engine, the second engine pumped the water to the third engine, and the third engine pumped the water on to the fire.
We set up, ran the hoses, connected them to the hydrant, and began delivering water to the fire. At some point, the engine closest to the fire had to shut down its pump. This engine was on a different radio channel in a different portion of spectrum from either us or the pumper at the hydrant. Our first indication that the engine nearest the fire was shutting down came when two of our 50-foot hoses ruptured and spewed water all over the parking lot.
It took a while to realize what had happened to the pumper and to replace the two damaged hose sections before we could resume delivering water to the fire. If we had been able to communicate with the engine at the hydrant, this delay and related issues would have been avoided.
While I was a volunteer fireman in Pennsylvania and Ohio, there were many examples of a lack of communications between units from different fire departments. In the Cincinnati, Ohio area, we experienced several tornadoes, hail, rain, and wind in one afternoon. All firemen, both paid and volunteer, sprang into action and headed to areas hit hard by several tornadoes. Once again, the lack of interoperable communications caused delays and prevented a more coordinated effort to find survivors. Thankfully, even with the delays we were able to rescue many survivors who had been trapped in basements or, in some cases, bathrooms.
The first article I wrote about the lack of interoperability between public-safety agencies appeared in the December 1981 issue of my Emergency Communications newsletter. With the assistance of the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T), the public-safety community has come a long way over the last twenty years, especially the last nine years.
It is a credit to the wireless industry that the nationwide public-safety broadband network provides the level of coordination and interoperability it does today. FirstNet has made a huge difference already and the network will become even greater after nationwide Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) is implemented and as additional technology, devices, and applications become available.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2001, Andrew Seybold, Inc.