Public Safety FirstNet (Built with AT&T); Existing and New Radio Systems
Most of you know why the public safety community worked so hard for the spectrum and some money to build out the United States’ only Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). The FirstNet Authority oversees the contractor responsible for building, managing, expanding, and extending network services. AT&T was awarded a long-term contract and the first five years is coming to an end. AT&T built the specified network, known as FirstNet (Built with AT&T). FirstNet has been up and running since 2017 and the first five-year phase is coming to a close.
What you may not know is that well before FirstNet was being discussed by the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) and others, the public safety community was aware of the lack of interoperability available when using Land Mobile Radio (LMR). Before FirstNet, agencies would cooperate with each other to enable regional and some statewide interoperability. A number of states were working on Stateline LMR systems and other regional areas were working on their own LMR systems. None of these partial solutions could truly meet the requirements of public safety nationwide.
None of this solved the interoperability problem between agencies. There were simply too many radio channels on too many different portions of spectrum licensed to public safety.
NPSTC Joins Search for Interoperability Solutions
The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) and many volunteers from several other organizations gave their time and shared their knowledge to improve public safety communications. Committees were formed and members worked sometimes for years to develop solutions. Many of these solutions were passed on to the FirstNet Authority after it was established.
One project NPSTC took on was to find a way to provide nationwide LMR channels that could be specially designated and named to provide interoperability in each band public safety uses. Extensive efforts and labor went into designating nationwide channels and simplex (off-network) communications that could be used for this purpose. NPSTC eventually found unassigned nationwide channels or marginals that did not even vaguely resemble those FirstNet currently used. These channels provided ways for agencies to talk to each other at major incidents, thus solving some of the interoperability problems.
Condensed History of Interoperability
I wrote this condensed history of interoperability hoping it might be of interest to readers who were not aware of how FirstNet (Built with AT&T) came to be. Many people from public safety have come onboard and are using LMR for the first time. These people may not know about the role LMR played leading up to FirstNet and the activity that led to some basic principles for nationwide wireless communications.
The good news is that the channels are still available and unless the expansion of cellular or LTE technologies interfere, these channels could be used by public safety for years to come. I have been asking for a nationwide broadband LMR systems with fully integrated push-to-talk.
Most of these people were volunteers from within public safety and Don Root was the coordinator and leader. Everyone was/is working at achieving our goals of providing better communications systems for public safety.
The object was never to stitch together a nationwide LMR system using all of the radio channels the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had already allocated to public safety. Rather, the goal was to stitch together a fully interoperable LMR communications network for the entire US. A network to provide coast-to-coast communications was not even considered.
Today you will see that each frequency band has off-network (simplex) channels. You will also see channels that are allocated for portable repeaters or even P25 systems that can be deployed during an emergency. Thanks to Don and his volunteers, every frequency also has a name tag that is designed to be programmed into the radio. Every channel will appear with the name that has been set aside for that particular channel.
The name of each channel is the same across the US or across an area it is designed to cover. These coordination/interop channels are not being widely used at this point and while they remain in place, the project NPSTC took on was not completed. If and when this plan reaches completion, NPSTC will give it to the public safety community to use.
FirstNet provides broadband wide-area coverage, and interoperability channels run across most states. With this combination, FirstNet could be part of the system that will ultimately be built and will include Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911).
Public Safety Radio Spectrum
While I was thinking about these LMR channels and what they had been designed for, it became clear that even before FirstNet was being considered, other projects were underway in an effort to provide better communications connectivity at major incidents. They were not considering a network to provide coast-to-coast communications.
Now FirstNet has more than 40 million users and that number is growing by the month. LMR is still alive and well and if you read publications that focus on wireless communications and/or public safety, you will see recent articles being written about the number of FCC licenses requested by agencies is once again on the rise.
I believe most of these new licenses are to change out networks from one technology to another, e.g., analog to P25 trunked and/or simulcast.
Nationwide Interoperable Network
Many people still believe there will be a truly nationwide interoperable network, starting with push-to-talk and FirstNet. The network must be easy and inexpensive to connect to LMR systems in the US. If we have all these interoperability channels on the public safety channels, we will have nationwide broadband coverage from FirstNet and combination systems.
I think it makes the most sense to expand LMR, FirstNet LTE, and FirstNet using 5G. Many of the same people working on these expansions have also turned their attention to better inbuilding communications. To this end, some exciting alliances have been formed.
All of the spectrum needs to be maintained for public safety use. However, those who envision a future of all-broadband and all-IP need to take an additional look at the other spectrum already licensed and operational. I am sure some of these folks will come up with some ingenious ways of establishing nationwide interoperability—sooner rather than later.
January 2023 is coming to a close and there are eleven months left in the year. What will the next eleven months bring us in the way of public safety communications devices, services, and applications?
We already know there are some new LMR devices almost ready to be introduced. By reading the news, you will see how many companies continue to work on new handheld devices, primarily for FirstNet and other broadband networks. Leading the pack seems to be Samsung with its Galaxy followed by Motorola (not Motorola solutions, which is busy developing new products that will generally bracket the LMR and broadband network). A number of other vendors continue to deliver solid products.
High on my list of products and services we need to see in the marketplace soon, very soon, include fully-interoperable nationwide PTT on FirstNet connected with LMR systems. As I wrote last week, it should be simple and easy to help users transition to FirstNet without having to trade-out too much equipment, which would require additional funding.
Once again there will be a Plugfest focused on PTT over broadband. The challenge appears to be to see how many different handset vendors and different server vendors can provide interoperability with other vendors’ equipment.
If you read the Advocate on a regular basis, you know I am strongly in favor of a common fully-interoperable PTT service for both FirstNet and LMR systems. The goal of the Plugfest appears to be to provide access to public safety broadband systems in Europe and Asia for a multiplicity of vendors that want to provide push-to-talk. Our experience here was that there were seven or so PTT vendors, most of which are not concerned with interoperability with other vendors’ push-to-talk. This leads me to wonder why, as the literature states, they expect more than thirty vendors to take part.
The Balance of 2023
Let’s look at what the rest of 2023 has in store for us. There are still some who believe that once the 3GPP standard is finalized and available in all types of devices, it will take over the major share of today’s FirstNet PTT users. I don’t believe this. I believe we need to look at what is already on the market along with the 3GPP standard and figure out a way to provide fully compatible interoperable PTT over both broadband and LMR.
There are several ways PTT vendors can be successful in the US. First, they could offer products that are the absolute best and do everything public safety needs to do on both FirstNet and LMR systems. I believe that is too much of a leap of faith. The second way is to provide public safety with what they want and need while in the field without having to worry about which device or one application to use for PTT.
In this case, the winner(s) will be those that find the secret sauce and are willing to work with other vendors to put together a combined PTT solution. At the moment, it appears vendor greed and politics make it nearly impossible for some vendors to work together, while other vendors understand they can play a role if they step up to the table.
Otherwise, when I write this column next January we will be exactly where we are today, and clients (the public safety community) may have exactly the same type of communications they’re using today. Today’s LMR is far better than what they had previously, but it is still not good enough.
Until next time…
Andrew M. Seybold, Senior
©2023, Andrew Seybold, Inc.
Note: Because we will be out of town, we will not be publishing an Advocate next week.