Public Safety Advocate: Drones, FirstNet Data Interoperability, Computer-Aided-Dispatch, Muni-Wi-Fi Again?

Drones—Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

Concern is growing within the public-safety ranks about citizens flying drones over incidents that call for first responders. When incidents involve wildfires, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) usually declares no-fly zones up to 5,000 feet above the fires. I am told some drones can receive no-fly zone alerts and they will not fly into no-fly areas. Unfortunately, more common, less expensive drones do not have that capability.

When a drone is reported in the area of an incident, planes and helicopters (helos) are grounded and cannot assist when needed during wildfires and under certain other circumstances. Because of this, many within the public-safety community are calling for the FAA and potentially the FCC to permit public-safety personnel to disable drones flown by citizens or reporters and to recommend ways to do so. It is reckless for people to continue to fly drones into areas where public safety must be able to monitor the safety of equipment and personnel assisting them from above. There are hefty fines for violating FAA rules but first, someone has to find the person flying the drone and he/she must be arrested. Perhaps some of our military’s methods for disabling drones would be appropriate for public-safety use.

Of course, there are some issues with using RF jammers and the wireless community is very familiar with these since it has encountered jammers when some prisons and even schools have ignored FCC rules and jammed radio systems to prevent unauthorized cell-phone use. It is illegal to use most jammers, and all jammers intentionally spew out interference that impacts WiFi, cellular, and public-safety radio traffic. There must be a better way to disable drones. 

Interoperability on the FirstNet Network

The idea behind FirstNet was to empower the public-safety community with a nationwide, broadband network capable of providing interoperability between public-safety agencies regardless of where they are and among all agencies reporting to an incident. 

When the FirstNet Authority was formed in 2012, work began to turn the vision into a reality. While the contract for a private partner to build out, operate, and maintain the network was not awarded until early in 2017, today, the contractor (AT&T) is ahead of the five-year build-out requirements on all counts. Now we have a true nationwide broadband network that is being used by more than 17,000 public-safety agencies and more than 2.2 million users. 

The network portion of the vision has come together better and faster than most within the public-safety community and vendors thought possible. Both the FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) have shown time and time again that they are intent on providing the interoperable network public safety has been without for far too many years. While there may be more to be done and more sites to be built, they have delivered it and it is called “FirstNet.” In the meantime, AT&T is opening up its 5G spectrum to FirstNet public-safety users. However, the “smart broadband network” is not yet providing the extent of nationwide interoperability promised.

FirstNet Data Interoperability

There continues to be a lack of interoperability between the various forms of data that flow throughout the FirstNet smart network. It is clear that the FirstNet Authority oversees the network and the contractor (AT&T). What is not clear is who should be responsible for driving interoperability for data services including Push-To-Talk (PTT), data, video, and applications.

Frankly, I believe it will be much more difficult to provide common-data solutions than it was to build the network. Public safety and the FirstNet Authority understand this. While building and operating a network takes a qualified and experienced company, it seems there are no definitive rules or guidelines for providing interoperable PTT, data, video, and applications—the next important phase of the FirstNet project. 

This phase should begin with federal funding to deploy Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), an incoming broadband pipe that will direct incoming calls to Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs). Today, ECCs using standard 9-1-1 systems handle mostly straightforward phone calls and some can process text. Once deployed nationwide, NG911 will deliver incoming voice calls, text, video, pictures, and perhaps more to the ECCs. These will be vetted and ECCs will send some or all of the information directly to those responding to an incident and their line officers. Thus, NG911 will deliver better, more detailed information to first responders. When the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) was formed to persuade Congress and others to allocate spectrum and funding for FirstNet, NG911 was not part of the plan. NG911 is a separate project that is once again being driven by the public-safety community.

FirstNet “Smart” Network

Back to the FirstNet “smart” network. Today we can send data over FirstNet in the form of voice, text, video, images, and more. “Data” is defined as everything transported over the network. With the exception of text messages, data traveling over FirstNet is in many different formats and it is difficult to impossible to share this data between agencies at an incident or with anyone in a position to assist personnel at the incident.

Everyone knows we do not yet have a common and fully-interoperable push-to-talk platform across FirstNet. All the pieces and parts are there but it seems the current state of affairs is to wait until all the “open standard” pieces and parts are available and we put them together. I believe interoperable PTT is the first, most important element of data interoperability across the FirstNet network and we could have interoperable PTT today with existing vendors and existing applications.

We have all the tools necessary for PTT interoperability between FirstNet agencies and to-and-from Land Mobile Radio (LMR). It should be relatively easy to implement since there is a known number of PTT-approved providers. The difficulty arises when trying to convince these vendors to come together to make PTT interoperable on a nationwide basis and available to all FirstNet users. 

FirstNet Applications Interoperability

Once PTT is interoperable, applications, another element of FirstNet, will need to be interoperable. Applications may be the most difficult to deal with even though the use of APIs may help. Even then, some data sets might not be able to be corralled into some form of interoperability.

The FirstNet library contains a host of great applications. Many agencies come to FirstNet using what they consider to be the best applications for their purposes and they want to continue using them. Different applications use different types of data files and a number of vendors are resisting making changes to their applications to enable sharing data with other vendors’ applications. Some are even protecting their software and data in ways that prevent them from becoming interoperable.

Data interoperability will require much more work and a great deal of coordination. Missing from the puzzle is an entity “in charge” of delivering interoperable data—not a committee of fifty, or a single person, and certainly not a single vendor. We need a taskforce of knowledgeable people to sit down, develop a plan, and then execute that plan. 

A while back, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) undertook a project to enable programing of other vendors’ handheld and mobile radios in the field. As I recall, it built a spreadsheet that could import many different data formats and then output the appropriate format for each vendors’ programing application. A similar attempt to bring together multiple venders was the recent launch of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) effort to standardize on a handheld radio and microphone that can withstand very harsh and hot environments. Both projects were successful but each took a lot of time because so many wanted to be involved. The goal of determining how to achieve better interoperability is sound; it’s the execution that is difficult. In fact, it may not even be possible for some data sets.  

FirstNet Broadband Network

FirstNet had to be a broadband network because it takes broadband to transport and share applications, video, pictures, maps, and much more in a timely manner so all who need the information will have it. I see no technical impediments to prevent all these data forms from becoming fully interoperable…if an entity decides to drive the task of bringing vendors and others together to reach a consensus on a standard for how to exchange their data. 

The Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) division of the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), the FirstNet Authority including the Technology Office in Boulder CO, the Public Safety Advisory Council to the FirstNet Board of Directors, FirstNet (Built with AT&T), and organizations including the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) and APCO Worldwide are all helping to bring together vendors and others to negotiate standards.

Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, there are so many people with great ideas and the desire to get things right that it tends to takes a long time to reach an agreement. There is also the issue of whether a company is willing to give up its intellectual property for the good of the public-safety community. The rules were clear when I co-founded the Portable Computer and Communications Association (PCCA) many years ago, when I participated in the Personal Computer Memory Card Association (PCMCIA), and when I served on the Bluetooth committee. (Remember the PCMCIA? I described this acronym as “People Cannot Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms.”) The rule was if you come to contribute, leave your patents and intellectual property at the door. For the most part, this worked well. 


With the increasing burden on our public-safety agencies with more and larger incidents that require a wide range of resources, we do not have time to wait for interoperability on many fronts. The issue is not whether open standards can facilitate interoperable data sets over FirstNet, it is how long will it take and whether the vendor community will cooperate. 

FirstNet has made a huge difference for the 17,000-plus agencies using it and more agencies are joining every month. Now that FirstNet is nationwide, we find we did not need to be concerned about overloading the network or being concerned about being less than 100% public-safety grade. (In reality, even the best LMR network will not meet all the requirements of public-safety grade.) Any concerns proved to be unfounded mostly due to the number of deployables and feet on the ground provided by AT&T. Now that FirstNet is essentially in place, we need to turn our attention to making content that moves across the network interoperable between agencies. 

Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD)

While not directly tied to FirstNet, one more data set needs attention. Computer-aided dispatch can transport files including maps and other location-information data files from one ECC to another, or even into the field, using FirstNet if the data is interoperable.  Several years ago, in Santa Barbara, I was asked to look into whether there was a way for the five county Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) to be able to share their data files. (I think five is too many for a population of several hundred thousand.) After spending a lot of time investigating, I found one vendor that said it could write a software package to convert CAD files from one format to another. The price was horrendous and if only one CAD vendor made changes to its data format it would cost even more. On that note, the project was dropped. Today, exchange of CAD files is a bit easier, but with nationwide NG911, it should be easier than ever to share CAD files between ECCs.

Winding Down

Long before I was writing the Advocate, I was writing and publishing monthly newsletters (1981-2003). For a couple of years, I was writing a series of newsletters for Forbes and adding fairly regular columns to During that time, I was very critical of the mad rush for cities and counties to provide Muni-Wi-Fi within their jurisdictions. Most of these systems failed because, as many of us pointed out, there was no a sustaining economic model to continue to pay for network expansion, maintenance, or other items, and WiFi coverage into homes and offices from WiFi access points was not dependable when most access points were mounted on telephone poles. 

New York City tried multiple times for a successful muni-Wi-Fi system. In one attempt, pay phones on street corners were supposed to house WiFi access points for residents, and this was followed by yet another attempt. I had forgotten how many cities tried and failed at Muni-Wi-Fi until I saw a recent news article about the LinkNYC Kiosk program that uses a combination of WiFi “hotspots” and charging stations. Announced by the Mayor in early 2020, the program is way behind schedule, and most kiosks are being installed in areas where tourists are likely to be, not in the communities that make up New York City. NYC residents, the people who really need this program, do not have access.

In big headlines, the LinkNYC website states, “Free Super-Fast Wi-Fi and that’s Just the beginning.” Further down it says, “Good-Bye Pay Phone, Hello Link!” 

It is surprising that this project was even announced in 2020. Most Muni-Wi-Fi projects had folded their tents and left town, leaving equipment installed on light poles and debts but no service. If you look up at street lights in Phoenix, you will see many small boxes with three antennas each. These WiFi devices were left by Metricom, the precursor to Muni-Wi-Fi. As I recall, Phoenix tried harder than any other city to succeed with the Metricom system but eventually turned everything off. We will wait to see if NYC can make a go of its LinkNYC project or if it will end up with abandoned kiosks on its sidewalks.

I wrote last week’s Advocate before Ida made landfall and proceeded to wreak havoc, first in Louisiana, then in the east where it caused flooding and storm damage in Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey. Ida knocked many cell sites off the air, Louisiana’s power grid was basically destroyed, and backhaul (fiber, etc.) was damaged. 

During situations like this, the FCC tracks how many cell sites from each vendor are affected daily. Based on that information, we can see how quickly most network operators put their networks back on the air. FirstNet had at least sixteen deployable assets in the area and in less than a week after Ida’s landfall, the AT&T network (meaning FirstNet as well) was 98% operational. Communications are vital to assisting with rescue efforts and coordinating the huge tasks that are putting people’s lives back together and we saw a lot of hard work and dedication from AT&T and the other network operators. Sixteen years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit the same area, it was many weeks before communications were restored. 

Once again, we thank first responders, medical personnel, cellular network and power company employees, and everyone else who pitched in to help. 

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: Drones, FirstNet Data Interoperability, Computer-Aided-Dispatch, Muni-Wi-Fi Again?"

  1. John Contestabile | September 9, 2021 at 2:48 pm | Reply

    As usual Andy, your comments on interoperability are spot on….however, you may not be aware of an effort by DHS CISA to address these concerns…they are putting forward an information sharing framework [ISF] methodology [should be published in the next few weeks] that is designed to derive an architecture to improve interoperability [full disclosure, I have worked on the project]….I would like to provide you more information on this effort.

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