There is a lot happening this month. Unfortunately, since Congress is taking its usual August break, there won’t be any further action to repeal the T-Band nor will there be any activity in Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) funding. Further, there does not appear to be any progress in coordinating, funding, and finally serving many in rural America who still do not have access to broadband. Meanwhile, the FCC has turned down petitions from both the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) that call for a stay of the order issued by the FCC in April 2020 permitting secondary use of the already heavily used 6-GHz spectrum.
Today, licensed users of 6-GHz spectrum are primarily critical-communications providers that use the 6-GHz band heavily for point-to-point microwave systems. Many of these microwave systems serve as backbone connections for both broadband and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) as well as links for utilities to help manage power and other utilities. Broadcasters also use the 6-GHz band for mobile links wherever they are needed when covering news, sports, and other remote activities. The FCC plans to rely on an automated system being developed to ensure unlicensed systems do not cause interference. I believe the FCC is ignoring the science of radio interference issues that are of great concern to licensed users on the 6-GHz band.
Unfortunately, it appears the three majority members of the FCC do not place any value on critical communications but instead seem to believe their responsibility is to ensure commercial users and unlicensed equipment vendors receive the choice spectrum allocations regardless of the potential consequences for existing and future spectrum users. Recently, the FCC approved the Ligado Internet of Things (IoT) 5G network that may, in fact, cause interference to our Global Positioning System (GPS) when any GPS receivers are in close proximity to Ligado cell sites.
As I recap what has and has not transpired in the way of sane and safe spectrum allocations, and spectrum critical-communications users have not been able to nail down, my only hope is that regardless of the outcome of the November election, at least two of the majority Commissioners will move on. It appears from Tweets that one or both are eyeing runs for political office. Unfortunately, there is no way to hold any of the Commissioners accountable for interference issues that may be caused by their recent actions, and new Commissioners will be left to deal with any issues that arise as new systems come online.
All indications are that spectrum decisions are being made in a vacuum. It does not appear those in Congress, within the FCC, and perhaps even the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA) listen to people who actually use the spectrum. When the FCC first granted an additional 24 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum to public safety in August 1997, it was because the FCC founded and eventually listened to the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC). In its final report in November 1996, PSWAC called for 97.5 MHz of new public-safety spectrum.
Even with that recommendation, it took FCC Commissioners until August 1997 to allocate additional spectrum for public safety. While it was nowhere near the recommended 97.5 MHz, 24 MHz of spectrum in what was then the TV Band portion of 700 MHz was allocated. In February 1999 following this allocation, the FCC formed yet another advisory group made up of public-safety professionals and called it the public-safety National Coordination Committee (NCC). In 2003, the NCC recommended division of the 24 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum into 12 MHz for existing LMR use and 12 MHz for what was then wideband spectrum. Wideband spectrum was made up of 50-KHz channels to enable public safety to provide data services at higher speeds than with existing channels that had been sized for voice communications.
When the 9/11 Commission Report was released in 2004, it called for creation of a nationwide public-safety broadband network. It was not until 2007 when the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) was formed that the FCC began work to convert the 12 MHz of wideband spectrum into 10 MHz of broadband spectrum with 1-MHz guard bands on either end. The first nationwide FCC license was issued to the PSST in November 2007 but it took the creation of the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) in 2009 to convince Congress, the FCC, and the Executive Branch that public safety needed 20 MHz of spectrum. That 20 MHz was settled on and FirstNet was created in February of 2012.
Today’s Spectrum Situation
I included this history to point out that for many years the FCC relied on committees made up of practicing public-safety officials to determine what the public-safety community really wanted and needed in the way of spectrum. Public safety did not always end up with all it wanted, but it did succeed in gaining more spectrum due to the efforts of the two committees formed by the FCC itself, and then as a result of the public-safety community coming together and forming the PSST and then the PSA. While these two organizations were different from those created by the FCC, they accomplished their goals and worked with Congress and the FCC for the establishment of FirstNet and spectrum for the network.
Today, many who started the Public Safety Spectrum Trust and the Public Safety Alliance have come together again, as discussed in last week’s Advocate, to form the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA). As I was writing last week’s column and working with the PSSA, it occurred to me that over the last fifteen years, the FCC has ceased assembling groups of public-safety professionals to help address public-safety community needs. Instead, three times now, the public-safety community has had to create its own organizations to work with Congress and the FCC. The current FCC has made it even more clear that its priority is not public safety or critical communications but the broader commercial markets.
My hope is that a new FCC Commission formed after the election (regardless of who wins) will reach out not only to the public-safety community but also to others who provide critical communications to gain insight into what still needs to be done and how new technologies can shape better ways to assign spectrum and, perhaps, to truly listen to those whose mission is to serve and protect. If I could require FCC Commissioners do to one thing, it would be to ride along with a law enforcement officer on a Friday or Saturday night in DC, New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, or Miami. After that, they would have to take another Friday or Saturday night ride with a metro fire battalion chief or an engine, and then one more week-end night ride-along with an EMS squad. After these real-world experiences, they would hopefully come away with at least the beginnings of an understanding that critical communications should not be secondary in spectrum allocations, it should be the priority!
Within the public-safety community, many well-known organizations including The FirstNet Authority, (i.e., Public Safety Advisory Committee), the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), the IACP, MCCA, NSA, MCSA, APCO, PSTA, PSBTA, PSSA, and more have established communications committees. They all include communications professionals who understand in detail what public safety wants and needs and they know how fast technology is advancing and how public safety can work with federal agencies to make sure all those in need of critical-communications spectrum will be accommodated along with commercial vendors and wireless technologies users. All federal agencies need to do to identify and better understand critical-communications requirements is ask for assistance. Designing a wireless world based on smartphones and free WiFi services will not be sufficient for all who need access to spectrum.
New Services and Products
As public-safety communications continue to evolve, we are seeing new services and products designed to take advantage of land mobile radio systems and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and other broadband networks coming online to make communicating easier or better. Below is an introduction to a few I believe will help the public-safety community.
Push-To-Talk over Satellite
Some companies that provide Push-To-Talk (PTT) over satellite include Cinetcomm in Las Vegas, FirstNet Satellite Partner Inmarsat, and now ESChat, which has partnered with Thales to add push-to-talk over satellite to the ESChat ecosystem. ESChat is an over-the-top push-to-talk provider with a large number of local, state, and federal agencies under contract. An over-the-top PTT system is easily transportable since it is broadband network-independent and capable of providing PTT services to users on a specific broadband network, is approved for FirstNet, or is capable of bridging PTT between FirstNet and other broadband providers.
With its new partnership with Thales, ESChat will be available via Iridium Cetrus broadband services (the second iteration of Iridium) and included in the Thales MissionLINK and Thales VesseLink product lines. According to the ESChat press release, “Push-to-Talk over satellite has always been a challenge, due to the high latency nature of satellite communication networks. The companies recognized that the capabilities of the upgraded Iridium® satellite constellation combined with modifications in the ESChat architecture, enable a reliable solution for PTT over satellite.
Satellite connected ESChat operates over standard Android smartphone and tablet devices that are connected through ThalesLINK WiFi. ESChat also runs on the Thales SureLINK Ruggedized POE powered IP Handset, which is an available accessory for the ThalesLINK system. Applications for Push-to-Talk over satellite include over ocean freight, passenger shipping, remote mining, search & rescue, and military battlefield communications.”
As more and more countries adopt broadband for public safety (many based on the U.S. FirstNet model) and first responders from other countries are sent to assist during major incidents, PTT over satellite will provide PTT communications both back to their home base and at the scene of the incident and will be much easier to establish than ever before. Congrats to both ESChat and Thales!
RapidSOS has been around long enough to prove its products and services work and can help provide Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) and Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) with better, fast, accurate caller location from both Apple and Android phones according to both the company and its users. Today this technology and service is being used by more than 3,500 agencies and there is a trove of information including videos about it on its website. The statement that caught my eye says, “We partner with technology companies to provide RapidSOS Portal at no cost to public safety agencies. Authorized ECCs can request access today to start receiving emergency data.” RapidSOS appears to offer a solution that moves ECCs and PSAPs from traditional 9-1-1 answering points closer to what we should expect as ECCs move into the world of NG911.
Sonim was the first entry into the FirstNet hardened-phone category and its device is being used by many departments that are using FirstNet. Recently, Sonim added “SonimWare Enterprise Mobility Software,” which enables seamless deployment, management, and support for Sonim devices. According to Sonim CMO John Graff, over the past few years, Sonim has added applications, utilities, and tools to its devices based on customer input. SonimWare bundles all these software advances and more into a common product with these key features:
- “Setup Wizard enables fast, efficient setup, deployment and customization.
- App Updater allows for quick, easy and remote application updates so users are equipped with the latest tools.
- Kiosk Mode customizes device screens to optimize usage to apps and features that are productivity related.
- SafeGuard offers enterprise control over which apps and features are used and ensures those used are work-related.
- Contact Transfer allows device contacts for voice calling and text messaging to be managed over-the-air.
- Call Screening blocks unwanted incoming calls and messages and restricts outgoing calls and messages to contacts.
- MDM Helper easily manages and controls device features critical to enterprises.
- Remote Support enables Sonim to offer immediate and comprehensive device guidance in real-time.
- Stealth Mode allows quick and easy control over notifications, sounds, display and LED when entering quiet environments.
- Remotely lock or factory reset lost devices.
- Block operating system updates until they have been tested (and approved by the enterprise).
- Deploy custom configurations for device hotspots and ensure the hotspot is launched on device boot.”
SonimWare should appeal to many first-responder agencies as well as Sonim’s corporate customers. Since many departments and organizations use a mixture of devices that include Sonim and others, I would like to see Sonim expand the functionality of this suite of applications to help manage a typical fleet of devices from a variety of vendors.
In the world of High-Power User Equipment (HPUE), there are now two approved FirstNet vendors. It should be noted that HPUE devices are permitted to operate in high-power mode only on FirstNet’s Band 14 700-MHz spectrum. However, they also operate at standard power across all AT&T broadband spectrum that has been made available to FirstNet users. Assured Wireless is the first company with approved products and AirGain is the second with AirGain Connect, which incorporates the Assured Wireless HPUE module directly into a multi-function antenna.
While both Assured Wireless modules and AirGain Connect provide standard ¼-watt power output in all FirstNet non-Band 14 spectrum, they are capable of running at power levels up to 1.25 watts on Band 14. (There is what might be considered a “discussion” between a cell site and an HPUE device, which uses only the minimum amount of power necessary.) Early testing shows this increased power offers better metro-area inbuilding coverage and much improved coverage in rural areas. Several tests run by Assured Wireless show that in rural areas HPUEs can increase cell site coverage up to 80-percent. Further, since the devices are running at up to 1.25 watts, uplink data speeds further from the center of a cell site will also be increased.
In preparation for receiving an AirGain antenna, I have been conducting extensive drive testing in the Phoenix area noting any locations where existing FirstNet coverage is not as robust as it could be. I am told by Sierra Wireless that once I receive the AirGain antenna and install it on the roof of my car, the Sierra Wireless cloud system that tracks my driving and captures the coverage of both installed networks will also capture coverage using the new, higher-power devices. This means I will be able to test areas with and without HPUE in the mix.
As far as I am concerned, high power is a game changer for many agencies that use FirstNet and I expect both the Assured Wireless and AirGain products to be in demand.
Over the past thirty days, and especially the past two weeks, things have been busier than usual in many parts of the United States. Covid-19 is letting up in some places but not in others, a rare derecho storm with winds up to 100 mph left a path of destruction across the Midwest, major storms moved east and along the east coast, and wildfires continue to burn in many southwestern and western states. A few days ago, a major storm tore up much of the California coast and spewed lightening (unusual for the area) leaving thousands without power, starting more wildland fires, and creating more havoc. FirstNet moved its deployables around like pieces on a chessboard and even managed to cover the biker rally in Sturgis during all this other activity. Congrats to all first responders and to the FirstNet deployable and emergency teams that fanned out across the United States.
I am hoping at some point to acquire a FirstNet Samsung phone equipped with the 3GPP standard known as Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT). I still refuse to use the term “mission-critical” myself, but I will say I am waiting for a public-safety-grade PTT-capable FirstNet phone to try out. I have both the Kodak (Motorola) and ESChat PTT products installed on my phone and hope to load both on the new Samsung phone once I receive it so I can run tests with all three. The PTT tests I run look at what I call “attack time,” also called “startup time,” which is the time between when a PTT button is pushed and talking can commence. Beyond that is the time between when the first PTT user lets go of his/her PTT button and the next user can push his/her PTT button to respond. I refer to this as “volley time,” the time between users when no voice transmission or reception is possible.
More testing is run for analog FM, conventional P25, and trunked P25 LMR devices. The final set of tests depends on how many LMR systems are joined to FirstNet via a bridge of some sort, Radio over IP (RoIP), DFS, or ISSI for P25 trunked systems. In early tests with ESChat and P25 at a major event, lag times were respectable and PTT worked well. Audio delay was noticed only when a P25 user and a FirstNet user were close enough to hear the other radio, at which time there was a slight difference in when a conversation could be heard from each speaker.
There is still a lot of work left to be done in the PTT world but progress is being made. Hopefully, we will reach a point where regardless of the PTT application installed on your device, you will be able to communicate with any other PTT-capable device whether it is an LMR device or another FirstNet device using a different flavor of PTT. That, of course, is where we need to be. The question is how soon will we get there.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.