I recently saw a posting on Twitter from the governor of South Dakota announcing her state is requesting proposals to cover “all corners” of the state with broadband. By the time I saw the announcement, the time period for submitting proposals had passed but it started me thinking once again about rural broadband and FirstNet (Built with AT&T).
We all should know that when FirstNet was created by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by the then President in February of 2012, one requirement called for the FirstNet organization to provide coverage to public safety agencies in rural America. When FirstNet the Authority issued its Request for Proposal (RFP), it stated that Band 14, the public safety broadband spectrum, was to be built out in metro and rural areas essentially at the same time. This was to ensure the winning bidder did not build out Band 14 only in metro areas where it could resell unused spectrum to recoup its costs and that Band 14 would be built out everywhere.
As it turned out, AT&T won the RFP and is not only building out Band 14 public safety, it is providing full pre-emptive access for public safety to all AT&T LTE spectrum. As we continue to conduct our drive tests and follow the build-out, it is clear this mandate is being followed by FirstNet (Built with AT&T). However, where Band 14 is available in rural areas, and it can be used with higher-power LTE devices, still two things are being missed by those offering grants and loans to various organizations wanting to build out rural broadband.
As I have stated before, the number of different grants from different agencies within the federal government is staggering and they are all different. Some are outright grants, some are low-interest loans, and some are a mixture of the two. The grant applications are all different and most do not provide any ongoing funding for continued operation of the broadband services once the build has been completed. To my way of thinking, another issue is that many of these grants focus only on fiber to the business, house, or farm. Repeating myself, farmers would rather have wireless broadband covering their fields so they can continue to automate their machines and other devices.
Perhaps some of you are aware that when cellular was first built out in rural areas, mostly by small telecoms, farmers began using cellular to turn on water in their fields and for similar purposes. As demonstrated when farmers banded together before cellular, mounted TV antennas on high hills, and shared the antennas with other farmhouses in the area (first form of cable TV), our farmers are creative and always on the lookout for ways to simplify and enhance their lives.
FirstNet (Built with AT&T) is also required by the terms of the contract to form partnerships with a specific percentage of rural telecoms and cellular providers and it has. While this should have helped with rural coverage, the process of providing smaller cell companies with LTE and even Band 14 has been slow for a variety of reasons.
What we are left with are a number of rural organizations dedicated to providing broadband to their rural communities, a law that requires FirstNet to build out in rural areas, and plenty of grants and loans, of too many sizes and shapes, to help build out in rural areas. Even without coordination of these assets, rural areas have been increasingly served by broadband in many states. However, due to the processes currently in place, rural coverage will remain piecemeal and uneven and it will take exceedingly long to cover most of the populated rural areas. Ubiquitous rural broadband coverage could be in place within a few years if only there was better coordination between the various parties.
I was prompted to write about this situation when I read South Dakota’s request for proposals and saw it too was written like a federal grant application, requiring a huge investment in time and effort from a company or organization before it could even submit the proposal for consideration. Further, I did not see any guidance from the State about a master plan. I was hoping to find a detailed methodology that included high-speed backhaul (fiber and/or microwave) with wireless to the streets and perhaps WiFi or 5G into the buildings.
My long-time favorite model is to run fiber to a rural school and then use broadband wireless to distribute broadband to the surrounding area, including students’ homes. There are still too many rural areas where a school and/or library has broadband services, but once users leave those buildings there is nothing. It is difficult for students to excel when they cannot access broadband at home.
Some states may see thousands of little satellites as the answer to finally bringing broadband into their rural areas. However, as I said a few weeks ago, I am not convinced there is a business model for employing little satellites. I have heard one potential provider intends to charge businesses more than homes but has not mentioned any pricing. Both the cost of the service and when or if it might be ready for primetime remain unknown. The bottom line is I don’t believe we should wait for thousands of satellites to be the ultimate fix when we don’t know how well or if it will work, or if each home and company will be faced with having to install some kind of antenna on their building to feed Wi-Fi, 5G, or some other type of broadband inside. The total cost of ownership might be more than most rural citizens can afford.
The United States Government, especially the FCC, seems to love to bring together groups of people to come to DC, sit around a table, and discuss communications issues. The NTIA has a group working on future spectrum sharing and I am certain other organizations such as the Department of Homeland Security have their own groups. What if we could bring all interested parties together and develop a long-term plan Congress could introduce as a bill and it was signed into law?
Some states are holding summits among interested parties but I am only aware of a few states that are including FirstNet in these discussions. It seems FirstNet would be a willing participant with a treasure trove of valuable information to contribute. I believe we can provide rural broadband for our public safety agencies, students, medical clinics, farms, businesses, and everyone else. However, we cannot accomplish this effectively on a piecemeal basis. The resources are in place but there is a lack of sense and direction to make it happen.
As I was finishing this column, I saw an article in Inside Towers that gives me hope there might be some action from Congress on the rural broadband issue. Inside Towers reports Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), last Thursday introduced the “Broadband Interagency Coordination Act of 2019.” According to the article, “The legislation would direct the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enter into a memorandum of understanding to coordinate the distribution of federals funds for broadband development. Such an agreement would reduce overbuilding and ensure funds are targeted to unserved and underserved areas.” Perhaps this is the start of a move to cover rural America with broadband access and, hopefully, the FirstNet Authority (an Independent Agency reporting to the NTIA) will be included in drawing up this memorandum and it will lead to better coordination and faster build-outs!
On Wednesday the May 8, 2019 The US House of representatives Unanimously Approved the Tonko Bill to Increase Broadband Access. This bill is H.R. 1328, the Access Broadband Act. Now we have a house bill which has passed and the Senate has started their own process of a similar bill, hopefully the Senate bill can be passed too and then reconciled with the House bill, that will truly help get more broadband coverage into rural America.
To find out how quickly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, are entering the field of public safety communications, all you have to do is follow FirstNet or public safety on Twitter. Drones are being flown over burning structures or wildland fires to take and send back live pictures and to provide additional communications resources above an incident. Some of the newer devices will stay up in the air more than four hours, and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has used tethered drones to establish emergency communications systems.
While not exactly designed for public safety, one of my favorite new drones is from Australia and it is designed to fire a “bullet” into the soil. This bullet carries with it a seedling and fertilizer and it is calculated to be driven into the earth to a pre-determined depth. Think about the task of reforestation after a wildland fire and a dozen or so of these drones in action. And the rate at which they could put new seedlings into the ground at precise locations. This would be much faster and more efficient than a group of people manually planting seedlings.
Public safety is using drones for beneficial purposes but, unfortunately, others sometimes fly drones over incidents and disrupt air support or other related activities. The value of drones for public safety is to provide services quickly without jeopardizing public safety professionals. Some departments are using drones to replace helicopters on high-speed chases and, in one instance, I read a drone was used to deploy spikes in a roadway to stop a speeding vehicle, enabling law enforcement to capture the driver without additional exposure to law enforcement personnel.
I am most interested in drones that can be used over an incident to help coordinate activities and relay videos taken from above. I am also intrigued by the possibility of installing communications systems on drones. Being able to launch a system consisting of a full-on radio and radio core to be used as a standalone FirstNet system where FirstNet coverage is not available, and/or for LMR coverage, would be exciting uses for these devices. Drones are becoming more powerful and are available in more shapes and sizes, meaning they can carry heavier payloads and stay in the air for longer periods of time.
There are still issues with wildland fires and drones. During most major wildfires, a no-fly zone is normally established. The purpose of this no-fly zone, which I believe reaches as high as 4,000 feet, is so Air Bosses, Helos, and fixed-wing aircraft entering and exiting the fire area will not have to worry about other aircraft. When I was on a team developing a competing RFP response for the FirstNet RFP (which was never submitted), we spent a fair amount of time discussing this no-fly zone with professionals responsible for handling the aircraft. We did not come to a final agreement but if we had continued the discussions, we might have been able to carve out 4,000-6,000 feet for UAVs and require them to enter the area from above the no-fly zone. In this way, they would not endanger those dropping water and retardant on the fire, for example.
I am only now learning about the various types of UAVs already available and those coming soon. The expert in this field is a friend many of us know. Chief Warner (Ret.) has worked extensively to bring UAVs into the mainstream of public safety and I am indebted to him for the little I know about what is coming for public safety. The more tools such as communications, UAVs, and other devices we can put into their hands, the better public safety personnel will be able to perform their tasks.
This Advocate is being sent out and posted on May 9, 2019. Our spring cocktails and BBQ get-together, co-hosted by the Public Safety Advocate and the Phoenix Fire Foundation, will begin at 4 p.m. It should be a fun gathering, and I want to thank our sponsors Sierra Wireless, FirstNet (Built with AT&T), and Sonim Technologies. If you happen to be in the area and have not sent in an RSVP, feel free to contact us for specifics (firstname.lastname@example.org) and join in the fun. The following week is my annual trip to Dayton, Ohio, for the Dayton Amateur Radio Convention. I think this is my thirtieth year but I have missed a few so I’m not 100-percent sure. Then on June 1, I will be in Prescott, Arizona, presenting a session for ham radio operators and any public safety personnel who attend. The session is entitled, “With the Advent of the FirstNet Nationwide Broadband Network, Is There Still a Need for Amateur Radio?” My answer is “yes” and I will spend some time talking about how FirstNet came about, what it is, how it works, and why it is part of overall communications services that include Next Generation 9-1-1, Public Safety Land Mobile Radio, FirstNet and, during emergencies, Amateur Radio to assist with shelter communications and much more.
I am actively pursuing FirstNet success stories. There are more than 7,000 departments signed up and many of these agencies have used FirstNet at incidents. I see Twitter references to successes but would like to pen some in-depth stories on how FirstNet helped your department during an incident. Also, if you have already integrated your LMR PTT system with FirstNet’s broadband PTT (from one of the three approved vendors), please let me know if you used ISSI and whether it was already in your P25 trunked network, if you had to purchase it, or if you used one of the other methods to provide connectivity. I would also like to know if you plan to leave the bridge between FirstNet and your LMR system live all the time or on-demand only. FirstNet has been in use long enough now for us to start collecting solid input on how it is being used by various departments and agencies.
This year is turning out to be very good for public safety communications, including FirstNet, and I am told there may be some activity in the near term on some of the issues we need addressed by Congress and the Executive Branch. This, of course, includes the T-Band and other spectrum issues facing public safety.
Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.