December is an important month for FirstNet, the states, and the public safety community. Already this month, we have seen more states opt in to FirstNet before the December 28, 2017, deadline. As I mentioned last week, states that do not either opt in or opt out will be opted-in automatically if their governor takes no action. Also, the Pacific U.S. Territories still have some more time before their deadline because FirstNet/AT&T did not produce all of their information in time for them to take part in the December 28 opt-in deadline.
Also mentioned last week, I hope those who passively opt out won’t be leaving money or coverage on the table and will still encourage the state’s agencies to conduct their own meetings with AT&T and implement modifications they would like to see when it comes to coverage, pricing, and more. To me, the fact that Illinois opted in this past week is a big deal because Chicago is one of the major cities where AT&T will be making use of the public safety spectrum on a secondary basis to help manage the demand from its commercial customers.
This is the way in which FirstNet build and operate costs will be offset by AT&T. The original model for monetizing Band 14 spectrum was that when not in use by the public safety community, Band 14 can and will be used for commercial customers. If the buildout was for Band 14 only, secondary users of the spectrum would be charged for access to it. As it turns out, since Band 14 is now simply one more slice of spectrum for the FirstNet/AT&T public safety network, its value for secondary use is more to relieve congestion in major metro markets so AT&T does not have to buy additional spectrum when it is auctioned.
Pre-Emptive Access (Ruthless Pre-Emption)
When it was awarded the contract to build and operate the FirstNet public safety network, AT&T shocked a lot of us by offering up not only the 20 MHz of Band 14 but all its existing LTE spectrum as well. In addition, AT&T offered priority access to any agencies that signed up for the FirstNet/AT&T network after their states opted in. AT&T also said it would be offering full pre-emptive access to its entire LTE network starting in January of 2018. Instead, AT&T was able to start offering pre-emption in mid-December. This was in keeping with AT&T’s commitment to the network. It has been early on most things, and I expect this to continue since once a state has opted in AT&T has to convince the public safety agencies in each state to sign up with AT&T.
The issue of ruthless pre-emption was one of the driving forces when the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) was walking the halls of Congress. In a heavily attended meeting just outside D.C., both Verizon and AT&T stood up and stated for the record that they would not offer pre-emptive access to their networks for the public safety community because, essentially, its paying customers would not tolerate it. This became one of the main battle cries for public safety and was one more reason public safety needed its own network. A few years after this, most network operators began to offer several levels of priority access, one to gain access to the Radio Access Network (RAN) on a priority basis, and another to have priority for how the data flows across the network.
Full pre-emption or ruthless pre-emption is a far cry above that. During an incident or if the network in a given area becomes congested, responders will have access to the network even if commercial users must be pre-empted. The only exception to this is that a caller dialing 9-1-1 or connected to a PSAP on a 9-1-1 call will not be pre-empted. In reality, this issue was much more important when we were expecting to have only Band 14 or the 20 MHz of spectrum. In that case, an incident covered with only one or two cell sectors could become overloaded so it would be vital for public safety to have totally unfettered access to the network. With AT&T providing all its own LTE spectrum plus Band 14, the likelihood of having to kick others off the network becomes less of an issue but it is still built into the network. In the event it is needed, the capability is there and as importantly, it is in the ON position all of the time.
Local Agencies and The Law
Local agencies, as you know, are not mandated to join FirstNet/AT&T. They can continue to use their existing provider or not use any broadband services at all. Therefore, AT&T must convince these agencies to join FirstNet/AT&T especially since the FirstNet RFP has some harsh financial penalties if the number of public safety users on the network does not reach the goals and milestones set out by AT&T in its RFP response. Some local agencies that have been using Verizon for broadband services in states that have opted in are reporting that in many cases when they actually try out the AT&T network, they are pleasantly surprised. Many of the agencies that had not tried AT&T in the past five or so years are pleased to find out how good AT&T coverage has become in their area.
The “Failed” Communications Commission (FCC)
Last year’s FCC passed a rule to help safeguard the general public and for whatever reason, this year’s FCC seems to feel a need to undo it. Recently the FCC permitted any given market to permit one company owning multiple TV and radio stations and newspapers, and making sure all the news that is fit to air is the news the company wants the public to hear without any different slants. Next up and perhaps the most destructive of all is the undoing of the Net Neutrality rules passed under the guidance of then FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to make sure companies that control not only the pipes that make up the Internet but the content that flows over the Internet cannot be held hostage, and companies that compete with the big boys are not relegated to slower speeds or tolls in order to put their content in front of people. Under today’s new ruling by the “Failed” Communications Commission, those who control the Internet and the content can, if they want to, slow down or speed up others’ access to the Internet pipes.
I have to wonder with fear and trepidation what is next. We see more and more wireless technologies being rolled out, more spectrum being converted to broadband services, and the radio noise floor increasing (the amount of noise in a given portion of the spectrum without any transmitters operating in that spectrum). Those who understand wireless understand that when the noise floor goes up receivers cannot hear weaker signals. Therefore, systems including WiFi in-home systems, do not talk as far as they once did. If those making the rules for use of our spectrum do not understand the issues and the tradeoffs that need to be studied before a decision is made, it is possible the radio spectrum will become more and more polluted with radio noise just as cities have been covered in haze and air pollution. Congress and many others keep pointing to wireless as a very important part of the country’s growth strategy yet they are throwing spectrum protections out the window.
Regardless of which holiday we celebrate this time of the year, it usually involves family, friends, and a special meal. It may also include exchanging presents and it is often the time for reflecting on old friends. I would like to suggest this year we all spend time thinking about those who protect and serve us all while we are taking time off for our celebrations. Across the United States, public safety agencies will remain staffed. Those who support the public safety community may be able to take some time off but they, too, are on call if needed.
This year will be especially difficult for fire, EMS, and law enforcement personnel from the ten states that have sent their people into harm’s way to fight the many fires in California. Many of these folks, including, by the way, a number of prisoner volunteers who provide much needed people power, have been on the front lines of these fires for weeks and will remain there until the threat being posed by these fires has diminished. They have already missed holiday preparations, parties, and gift shopping, and they will miss the holidays and meals with family and friends. Instead they will have a meal at one of the fire camps and then after a few fitful hours of sleep, once again head back to the fire lines to try to get a handle on these fires that have already destroyed thousands of homes and displaced many thousands of people. When we sit down at the table, in whatever way we do so, we should all include these men and woman in our thanks and prayers.
Also on our list of those to thank are first responders who are volunteers. Many fire departments across the United States are dependent on volunteers. Some departments have a few paid personnel or EMS paid staff but then rely on volunteers for the rest of those who respond to fires. Other departments are 100-percent volunteer. They may start out their holiday at home with their families but if a call comes in they will respond to help others who may be in trouble and they will remain on the scene as long as it takes. In the United States and around the world we continue to see public safety and military personnel who, at the first indication of danger, do not run away from it but toward it in order to protect others. In many cases including the fires, they protect people they do not know, have not met, and probably never will, which makes what they do every day a noble cause.
This is meant to be a joyous time of year for all types and groups of people. We are able to enjoy the holidays because of the others who are standing watch, fighting fires, and treating the sick. My hope for the new year is that FirstNet will bring them new tools and new capabilities, and make each and every one a little more effective and safer.
Andrew M. Seybold
©2017 Andrew Seybold, Inc.