As many are aware, last year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided public safety was not making sufficient use of the 50 MHz of spectrum in the 4.9-GHz band the Commission had made available to the public-safety community for Wi-Fi-type services starting in 2002.
The FCC’s idea was to assign the spectrum to each state and each state could then award a master lease for the spectrum. The successful leaseholder would then be able to determine how the spectrum would be used within that state, and supposedly protect existing public-safety users of the spectrum.
The Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA) filed a number of comments and then filed a request for stay to prevent the FCC from moving forward with its intended plan. In 2021, the new FCC implemented the stay order and to a limited extent, began permitting public safety to once again license systems for use in the 4.9-GHz band.
The FCC then issued its Eighth Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the spectrum. This week, the FCC announced deadlines for the initial comment period for this NPRM and for reply comments. The deadline for comments is November 29, 2021, and the deadline for reply comments is December 28, 2021. As an aside, it is interesting that many of the filings for comments and reply comments have been due shortly after major holidays, not only for this notice but for a number of notices of rulemaking in the past.
The Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA), which is made up of both seasoned public-safety professionals who were involved in the success of FirstNet and new-comers will, of course, be filing comments and if necessary, reply comments. The PSSA has worked with the public-safety community to garner support for a number of things included in the notice of proposed rulemaking that could and should return the use of this spectrum to the public-safety community.
For more information, you can visit the PSSA website at ThePSSA.org and find out what the PSSA is doing to support public safety. If you would like to read the Eighth Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, it can be found here.
As it was during the roll-up to convince Congress to pass FirstNet, it is important that the public-safety community be unified in its responses to the FCC. If you or your agency wants to file comments or reply comments, you can find instructions on how do so on the PSSA website.
Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911)
It appears that Congress has basically stripped out most of the funds that were to be allocated to implement the much-needed Next-Generation 9-1-1 systems build-out across the United States. Reports in Urgent Communications and others indicate that 95% of the $15 billion has been stripped from the human infrastructure bill.
At this point, it is not clear what the response from the public-safety community will be, but it is important to understand that Next-Generation 9-1-1 is a broadband-based technology. Today, the only mode of communications available is voice. However, broadband will enable those reporting incidents to also send text, video, and pictures to the Emergency Communication Centers (ECCs). Once vetted by the dispatch center, these new forms of information can be sent on to the responding units via FirstNet. This is vitally important since this information will give public-safety personnel a much better understanding of incidents they are about to encounter. For something like a hit-and-run, if someone takes a picture of the license plate of the fleeing vehicle, instead of law enforcement passing the vehicle on the way to the scene without knowing they have passed the perpetrator, they will already know the vehicle’s license-plate number and, in many cases, they will apprehend the fleeing perpetrator on their way to the accident.
It is essential to public safety that we find a way to continue rolling out NG911 so it will become a nationwide upgrade to existing 9-1-1 systems that will also enable one ECC to take over for another if one is out of service for some reason. As I have said before, NG911 is the incoming pipe that will provide more detailed information about incidents to those responding.
Today there are a number of organizations that are continuing or have become involved in helping public safety with inbuilding communications or, more succinctly, the lack thereof. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been providing guidance and regulations for inbuilding communications for many years. Now there is an organization that is working on revitalizing inbuilding communications and updating regulations for more buildings. This organization is the Safer Buildings Coalition and its No-Noise Task Force along with FirstNet (Built with AT&T), which is already working on inbuilding communications to augment FirstNet coverage.
A number of buildings already have inbuilding networks, Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), or other active or passive ways of delivering public-safety signals into buildings.
However, there are a number of buildings throughout the country in which inbuilding public-safety systems are obsolete because agencies serving those buildings have moved to different portions of radio spectrum or the equipment no longer functions and no one knows who is responsible for its upkeep. Moreover, rules vary from state to state and county to county about which buildings are required to make provisions for inbuilding public-safety communications.
Many buildings now have a combination of inbuilding commercial cellular and public-safety communications capabilities. However, some of the systems can create noise or interference outside the building and cause problems with public-safety communications or other forms of communications. While all this effort needs to continue, I have to wonder if there might be a better and less-expensive way to provide within-building access for public safety.
I will start by describing the problem public safety faced during the Sturgis motorcycle rally. Leading up to this yearly event, a number of Wi-Fi access points were installed to provide access to broadband and phone communications without jamming cell sites in the immediate area.
In many cases, public safety used the access points during the rally. The problem was that once they connected to an access point, there was no way for them to be directed to FirstNet (Built with ATT). This meant public-safety personnel did not have access to the priority and preemption they normally have when they use FirstNet. While they were able to access the Internet and commercial broadband networks, if the commercial network was overloaded, they could not get through. In this situation, public-safety personnel turned to Wi-Fi, but Wi-Fi is not capable of directing them to FirstNet where they would have priority and pre-emption.
While this was a mostly outdoor event, it started me thinking about using Wi-Fi for inbuilding public-safety communications. I have done some research and found that there are ways to redirect users, public-safety users in this case, to FirstNet from a Wi-Fi router or access point. And there could be other ways to establish connectivity between Wi-Fi and FirstNet, for example.
What if the public-safety community worked with the Safer Buildings Coalition, the Wi-Fi Alliance, and Wi-Fi vendors, some of which I have discussed this with, to find a way to make sure every access point and router sold in the United States would in fact, be capable of routing verified public-safety users to FirstNet.
The goal is to be able to work with the Wi-Fi community to find out if it this is possible and, if so, make sure any changes that need to be made to access points and routers can be made at a minimal cost to the vendor. If, over time, every access point and router had the capability to redirect public-safety personnel to their own network with priority and pre-emption, public safety could use inbuilding Wi-Fi as the platform to provide inbuilding communications and to communicate with other public-safety units and ECCs from inside any building (almost all buildings have viable Wi-Fi systems).
This would not negate the need for inbuilding commercial cellular networks in building the NFPA and/or SBC believe need to be covered; it would provide near-ubiquitous access for public safety in almost every building and structure in the United States.
FirstNet provides nationwide interoperability for public-safety users. Today, the cost of providing inbuilding communications for the public-safety community is high. And since each state and county has different rules and regulations, it is not clear who is responsible for funding the inbuilding requirements or who in each jurisdiction is responsible for making sure the systems remain operational and up-to-date. If we can be creative and implement a system in which Wi-Fi access points and routers include the smarts to redirect public-safety personnel to their network with priority and pre-emption, over time, we could solve the indoor communications issues and perhaps add a way to increase inbuilding location reliability.
If the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Wi-Fi vendor community are up to working with public safety to investigate how this could work, it could be a boon to Wi-Fi vendors since many companies and even individuals would, at some point, upgrade their access points and/or routers to know public safety would have inbuilding communications if and when needed.
In addition to reducing the cost of inbuilding communications for public safety, this could provide savings to businesses and landlords because tenants would provide their own access points and routers as they do today. If the two industries can come together for the betterment of public-safety communications and figure out how to do this, I believe it would be a win for everyone: the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi vendors, landlords, those who use Wi-Fi on a daily basis in their buildings and homes and, of course, the public-safety community.
The Public Safety Broadband Technology Association (PSBTA) is holding its first annual conference live in Las Vegas January 18-21, 2022. This is a must-attend event for public-safety professionals and vendors. Details about the conference and exhibits can be found here.
In order to achieve the best possible set of communications capabilities for public safety, we need to make sure Congress and the FCC are aware that, to use an old adage, public -safety communications is a multi-legged stool. Notice I did not say three-legged, although the first three legs are vitally important and are made up of NG911, FirstNet, and LMR systems, especially as LMR back-ends are converted to Internet Protocol (IP). Another leg is inbuilding communications, and yet another is the ability to communicate with non-primary personnel as needed, including utilities, tow trucks, and other services that are needed before, during, or after incidents occur.
I am hopeful that the public-safety community can enlist the assistance of the public, Members of Congress, and those within the FCC, as it has in the past, to finally provide the extended combination of communications capabilities needed by the public-safety community to help them as they help us.
There continues to be more to be done to provide the communications tools our public-safety personnel need and deserve. It will take a concentrated effort from many different people and organizations to make it happen. FirstNet is the most important communications upgrade ever conferred on public safety. However, it can’t stop there. We need the other legs of the stool and we need them sooner rather than later.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.