Public Safety Advocate: FCC Recognizes Wireless, FirstNet Priority, Santa Barbara

After a week of travel, it’s nice to be back in Phoenix but Santa Barbara still feels like my home and I enjoyed interacting with many of the folks I worked with during the twelve years I lived there. Let’s start this week’s Advocate with something I find incredulous. The FCC is now saying broadband coverage maps for the nation should be expanded to include wireless broadband services! Where have these people been for the last ten years?

Many federal agencies still seem to believe broadband means fiber. Fiber is expensive to run and far too costly for rural areas where there is a lot of space between farms and small towns. Further, many of the available grants provide money for building out broadband but not for keeping it operational. All across America there are cases of systems that were installed but are no longer functional because there is a lack of funds to support their continued operation. I remain a staunch believer in fiber to a hub and then wireless including LTE, 5G, WiFi, or a combination of these to deliver broadband to customers. 

I have said many times that if we ran fiber to a hub, or to a single school for example, and then used wireless to distribute broadband to the rest of the area, we could provide broadband services for much less money. Recently, the NTIA held a well-prepared session with valuable information on how to partner with others to build out rural broadband. I believe partnerships could and should play a major role in achieving this goal. Among the potential partners are FirstNet (Built with AT&T), rural carriers, some wireless ISPs, and the power co-ops, all of which are available and interested in participating.

Rural America deserves access to broadband whether fiber, cable, wireless, or hybrid systems. However, as long as the federal government and states are not pulling on the same oar there will be more delays and more costs in providing broadband for these areas. If Congress would simply pass a bill to set up a common pool of money, information, and assistance, instead of only talking about it as it has for the past twenty years, we could actually accomplish something.

FirstNet Tiers of Priority

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an email I received from the East Coast about uplifting first responders during an incident. It turned out that anyone could be uplifted by their own department before being sent into another jurisdiction. Regrettably, the incident command that called in the other agencies does not have the capability to change the uplifting status or perhaps even know it occurred. This makes it difficult to coordinate a multi-agency incident and to make the call for which units should have the highest priority. Now, as it turns out, there appears to be another issue neither the FirstNet Authority nor FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has clearly defined. Again, the folks on the East Coast started digging into the situation. Here is what they found:

  • “All messaging I and my colleagues had heard prior to a few weeks ago from both the FirstNet Authority and AT&T was that there are generically 4 four tiers of priority. Public Safety lives in Priority Tier 2. The only persons in Tier 1 are the ones who get uplifted for up to 48 hours (renewable). However, this information was always followed with the caveat that public safety would ALWAYS have priority and would never get preempted. What was then assumed was that there was no need to uplift Priority 2 to Priority 1 since Priority 2 (Public Safety) always had priority and was never preempted. However, we finally received clarification that the levels of priority refer to who gets moved off the network in the case of catastrophic network failure (i.e. collapse or mass congestion). Each lower tier will be removed until the issue is resolved. SO … if you uplifted 1000 snow plow drivers to Priority 1 and the cops/fire fighters/EMTs were still Priority 2, they would be removed from the network before the snow plow drivers. FIRST TIME anyone has told us that. Their answer is … well, you need to make sure that Priority 2 users are uplifted to Priority 1 also. Logistically, maybe in a very small jurisdiction this is possible. In a large urban area, not so much. In the case of the Inauguration, who has time to uplift 30,000 public safety personnel involved in the event?
  • More importantly, this information is NOT being marketed to public safety. So, the only way folks may find out is the hard way, when the crap hits the fan, and the public safety folks are moved off network before the uplifts. BTW … AT&T and FirstNet Authority response to concerns is to state that the network is so robust, this really probably will never happen anyway. We know that is possibly true in a small jurisdiction (or perhaps more so in a small jurisdiction without much infrastructure but imports a whole bunch of public safety persons for an incident), but if a shooting happens at the Navy Yard again with thousands of public safety responders, now transporting video and other resources over the network, in an area served by only one cell, yeah, it’s a reality.
  • The next concern related to the above has NOT been fully verified. However, I was told by persons from both FirstNet AT&T and FirstNet Authority that ALL FirstNet users are enrolled by AT&T as Priority Tier 4 by default. Again, this is the FIRST that I have ever heard this, always being told that public safety is automatically Tier 2. When I asked about this, I was told that the agencies need to go into their local control panels and change the tier levels for public safety. No biggie if you are a small jurisdiction. Who has time to do that for big jurisdictions?”

I never did hear from either the FirstNet Authority or FirstNet (Built with AT&T) regarding this first issue, but I hope to have their responses to both of these concerns so I can provide answers to our readers. Both issues are essential for public safety. Good, solid answers as well as good, solid reasoning are needed from the two FirstNet organizations and they are needed as soon as possible. We are in hurricane season, it won’t be long before we face fall and winter storms, and with the continued dry climate in the West, we have already had significant wildland fires. 

All these incidents will require the appropriate uplifting by those in command of the incident, not departments sending equipment and personnel to assist. The need for priority is what drove the public safety community to push for FirstNet as long and hard as it did. We now find out, after the fact, that the concept of priority and pre-emption has been modified or changed because “it will probably never be needed.” This is not a valid reason to alter what FirstNet promised. FirstNet must provide priority and preemption that is pre-configured so, as stated above, when 30,000 public safety personnel descend on DC for example, those in charge of public safety communications for such events do not have to spend time uplifting and changing the status of those taking part in a massive event.

Santa Barbara

As planned, last week while in Santa Barbara I met with Montecito Fire, County Communications, Search and Rescue, the County Sheriff, and the National Park Service located in Ventura but responsible for all the islands off the coast. The first update I received was about a radio site I began to develop five years ago. Located on Santa Cruz Island, the site is called “Valley Peak” and it started out as a Nextel site installed by Craig McCaw who liked to hike on the island and wanted cell phone coverage. 

After the site was abandoned, I suggested it would make a good site for public safety to better serve the beaches, coastal areas, and canyons, which are difficult to cover from mountaintop sites. Montecito Fire was first to sign on and then County Fire, EMS, and Sheriff signed on. Soon, City Fire, Police, and several other agencies joined the party. We grew from a site for about six VHF and UHF radios to a full-up site for twenty-six radio systems. Further, many of them are simulcast, adding to the power load. Power is provided by solar, batteries, and then a generator. 

The tower is installed and up, the battery room is ready, and it is time to begin moving in the equipment. It was an interesting undertaking and I was pleased to see the County picked up the project and moved it forward after I left. Once the site is finished there will be a microwave link to the mainland and all transmitters/receivers will be using a common antenna system developed for the site by Telewave. The only thing left is for FirstNet to be interested in Valley Peak!

FirstNet and Santa Barbara

While FirstNet has been actively talking with the various departments within Santa Barbara County, for most of them, their hesitation comes down to coverage. I heard from all the agencies I visited that they want to become FirstNet users but not until FirstNet’s coverage is on a par with what they have now. I was told by the County that FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has committed to building an additional five towers within the County and this will help greatly. However, in Montecito, just south of Santa Barbara and home to many rich and famous people, mentioning radio towers could get you thrown out of town. While there are ways around this problem, these residents have not yet come to understand that there must be radio towers to have great, good, or any cell phone service. 

My visit to Search and Rescue (SAR) was also beneficial. We discussed the search that had taken place a few days before I arrived. A lone hiker was trekking along a forty-mile trail and he signed in every time he came to a registry point. However, he had not taken a complimentary alerting device provided by the Forest Service. During his hike, he became sick and dehydrated and was moving very slowly, yet he continued on the trail. His family, which had been informed of his route before he left, reported him missing, at which point Search and Rescue was activated and a number of volunteers from other organizations joined the hunt.

You may remember that a few weeks ago I wrote about the experimental portable Land Mobile Radio (LMR) repeater being developed by volunteer communications folks (Amateur Radio Operators or “hams”). The second revision of this device was finished and used in this search. A Cessna 180 flew over the area carrying the communications repeater that was used by SAR teams on the ground and the command center to coordinate the search. On Monday, the plane stayed up nine hours and on Tuesday it was up three hours when the hiker was found and a helicopter was sent in to rescue him (he will survive). The Search and Rescue folks are convinced that the flying repeater was a significant factor in their ability to coordinate the search. Like so many others, they are looking at drones to augment their communications and visual capabilities, but for now, airborne repeaters are of tremendous benefit. 

The County is preparing to upgrade the Sherriff’s radio system as well as others within the county but it is leaving County Fire on VHF analog FM. This makes sense with the rest of the coastal area on VHF FM for Fire, CalFire, and the Forest Service. I have to admit I am not a fan of the proposed Sheriff/County system. I fully understand why a hybrid system is needed but I am not a fan of hybrid systems in general. Plans are to convert the Sherriff’s existing UHF analog system to a trunked system and then in “urban areas” move to a 700-MHz trunked system. Apparently, the County has been promised switching between the two networks will be seamless for handhelds and mobiles. However, the cost per device will be higher than with a single-band solution.

Winding Down

As APCO approaches, I am making plans, setting up meetings, and sending messages to several people I hope to meet with while I am there. The FirstNet sessions are the only sessions I really want to attend since it appears the speaker line-up and topics will be of great interest to the public safety community. I am looking forward to the RCA Sunday night get-together and hope to see many of my CPRA chapter friends and people I have worked with since the early days of the Public Safety Alliance and our FirstNet venture.

After I return, I will drive back to Santa Barbara to run drive tests measuring coverage for several departments that have asked for tests in their specific areas so they can compare actual coverage of both their current network and FirstNet. It is a shame that for whatever reason Verizon does not want to level the playing field. I have asked repeatedly for Verizon to provide me with one of its “public safety SIMs” so both the FirstNet and Verizon radios in my Sierra MG-90 would have the same priority and therefore the tests would be more apples-to-apples. No one has answered or commented on my request. Therefore, I will do the best I can with the tools available to me. 

I do not favor one network over another during these drive tests. Rather, my objective is to provide results of the drive tests to customers so they can make their own determination of which network has the best coverage today and watch how the coverage changes over the next few months or years. In several drive tests, the results indicated that the customer should have both networks onboard its vehicles for the near future. Neither network covered the entire area but together they would provide acceptable coverage for the customer’s needs.

In the meantime, the PSTA has released the first report for the LMR-to-Broadband (FirstNet) integration roadmap I helped develop. This leaves Digital Fixed Station Interface (DFSI) and Radio over Internet Protocol-plus (RoIP-plus) to be addressed. Another significant issue concerns PTT solutions that have been approved for FirstNet even though they were not required to provide full interoperability with other solutions. We must get this right. Having disparate PTT applications will be fine as long as they can communicate with each other. If not, what have we really accomplished with FirstNet? FirstNet is meant to be a nationwide, fully interoperable network over which any department can communicate with any other department regardless of where they are located. Anything short of that is not enough!

Note: Due to my travel to APCO next week this column will be later than normal.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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