Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet and Interoperability

During speeches at the recent PSCR meeting in San Diego, two people made points that started me thinking about what lies ahead for FirstNet. The first was the Chair of The FirstNet Authority, Sue Swenson, who talked about FirstNet ending Chapter One on a high note and starting Chapter Two. The second was TJ Kennedy, who announced formation of the Public Safety Technical Alliance (PSTA), a non-profit that has been formed to work with the public safety community, vendors, and others to ensure components for FirstNet (Built by AT&T) meet the open standard mandate put into place by FirstNet the Authority.

Sue talked about the first chapter for FirstNet being a long one for many of us, spanning more than ten years. However, it concluded with the network in place, all 56 states and territories opting in, a large number of public safety agencies joining FirstNet (Built by AT&T), more approved devices coming to market, and momentum that will carry us into Chapter Two. As promised, the network is nationwide, it provides end-to-end encryption, has its own core, and delivers full pre-emption for the first responder community. Chapter Two then will be about what runs on the network and how to maintain full interoperability. The rationale for FirstNet was to provide a coast-to-coast and border-to-border network where vehicles and people could move into other jurisdictions to assist in an incident and not only have a common network but to be assured that what rides on the network in terms of applications, data access, and voice are all fully interoperable.

To this end, TJ Kennedy and a host of others formed the PSTA to work with FirstNet, public safety, vendors, and others to make sure what flows over the network is “operable” for all. However, before we start on Chapter Two, we must first understand that like any broadband network, it will never be truly finished. It will continue to grow, new sites will be added as needed, and it will encompass 5G small cells, the Internet of Things (IoT), and other related purposes for the network. AT&T recently committed $2 billion to building out FirstNet in rural America, which will also enable rural businesses and citizens to gain access to broadband they have never had before. Even after the 25-year contract is over, the network will continue to grow and expand using whatever new technology replaces 4G and 5G.

Chapter Two   

I believe Chapter Two will be about making sure that like the network, what runs on it is accessible to all. Let’s start with Push-To-Talk (PTT) over FirstNet. Today there are two contenders for PTT over FirstNet and more are on the horizon. Kodiak, now owned by Motorola, is embedded into the AT&T network and ESChat runs as an over-the-top application that has been approved by FirstNet, and more PTT vendors are seeking approval so they can be added to the network. Today this creates an operability issue since Kodiak and ESChat cannot cross connect easily. Work continues to ensure that any and all PTT systems that are approved interoperate with the others but there is still a lot to be done.

Next up is the bridging of Public Safety Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems to FirstNet’s PTT services. There are a number of ways to accomplish this but the bridging needs to be standardized and someone needs to take the lead for making the bridges available and affordable. I hope AT&T has plans for FirstNet to make this happen in the near term. Having a nationwide common network but fragmented PTT communications running over it only solves half of the operability issue. The same is true with many other elements.

TJ called out the need for standardized mapping. If you check with your local power company, you will find it now carries tablets containing a map of its power grid. When there is need for assistance from other power companies to repair services due to storms or other disasters, when help arrives the local grid maps are quickly added to their tablets to enable them to find and correct problems and in coordinating the effort. Most power companies have adopted the same grid map format. I am also concerned about applications. There are some now and there will be many more as most departments will choose the ones that best suit their needs. However, in addition to what they use locally there should be master applications similar to the nationwide LMR interoperability channels so data can be exchanged between agencies when needed.

There will be a great amount of different data, video, and voice sessions over FirstNet and there needs to be coordination. What good is one department taking a video of a bomb and distributing it to others to help identify the type of bomb if the video cannot be shared with each and every department that needs to see it? Having FirstNet as a common nationwide broadband network was, in retrospect, the easiest of the tasks. The next chapter is full of complex issues that will need to be solved and, hopefully with the guidance of the PSTA, the public safety community can arrive at some common and shared technologies and applications that will enable them to operate across this network and to share whatever type of information needs to be shared.

FirstNet was born out of a need for interoperability as highlighted by 9/11, Katrina, Sandy, and other disasters. What AT&T is building is a common pipe over which we can and will send and receive many types of information. To be effective, data must be in a form each department and each person within the department who has the right to access can do so without having to spend a lot of time converting it from one format to another. Getting the entire public safety community on the same page when it comes to the use of FirstNet will be challenging, but in order for FirstNet to completely fulfill the vision, the public safety community must come together.


Today there are many examples of cooperation. On the west coast, except for in the larger cities, fire departments run over analog VHF. In California, this includes local, county, state (CalFire), and federal (U.S. Forest) services and both the mobiles and handhelds are capable of 320 channels+ of analog. The various departments gather yearly to update the interoperability radio list so each agency can make changes to its own radios to add and delete channels and still be able to maintain a published list showing how and where all the channels are to be used.

Railroads are another example. Years ago, railroads began using two-way radios in their engines. Together they designed a common radio head with common interface cables. If you wanted to sell a two-way radio into the rail companies your equipment had to mate with their control head and cables. In the 1970s all three companies, Motorola, GE, and RCA, built radios that met these requirements. There are many other examples of cooperation but the important thing is that in each instance those that needed to interact with others came to the table, worked out solutions, and then implemented them.

In my days working as a civilian communicator with the fire service, I spent time making sure as each strike team (usually four or five engines and a battalion chief) arrived at the central location it left knowing what radio channels it would be using and for what purpose. In many instances we wrote the channel numbers in grease pen on the windshield of the vehicle. With today’s technology, at some point strike teams will be able to go directly to their assigned areas without having to stop. This could happen with over-the-air programming capabilities for FirstNet. Incident command personnel know which strike teams are responding and the engine information. It would not take much to be able to download maps of the fire for them and pinpoint where they were to be stationed, then program their FirstNet radios for the appropriate group communications services as well as continue to communicate back to their own jurisdiction to relay information.

Obtaining Congressional approval for FirstNet was a major, time-consuming process that involved many people from within the public safety community, mayors, governors, members of the vendor community, and more. FirstNet took up the challenge and while it seemed to take forever, an RFP was on the street and the contract was awarded to AT&T, which faced a court battle on the way to the award. AT&T grabbed the ball and stood up for FirstNet not only on Band 14 as we all expected but on every slice of its existing LTE spectrum. Further, it put the network into operation in record time with full pre-emption and a dedicated core.

Now the most difficult element is ahead of us. We need to keep our eyes on the initial goal of a fully interoperable nationwide broadband network—not simply the network itself, which AT&T is handling. Beyond that we need to turn our attention to what we run across the network. It would be too easy to end up with half of the FirstNet vision completed by the network being in place and the other half eluding us because public safety falls short in ensuring each and every department has access to any and all forms of communications running over FirstNet.

Winding Down

There is one more issue that needs to be discussed. We all know AT&T was awarded the contract to build, operate, and maintain FirstNet but other operators are now trying to pile on and split the public safety community, thus preventing the promise of FirstNet to ever be fully met. These other network operators cannot operate on Band 14, they cannot use the FirstNet core, and they cannot share in the applications available to FirstNet users.

Yet the danger is that in many cities and counties the person or organization making the determination of whether or not to join FirstNet and making the best deal possible are not schooled in communications. They don’t know the difference between FirstNet and a Verizon network. What they do know is that Verizon is sometimes offering them better pricing and pitching a better deal than FirstNet. What they are missing is the fact that Verizon’s network has no government over site while FirstNet does, and that FirstNet is a unifying network to ensure interoperability between their own city or county and any and all other agencies. I have heard from many within public safety that they have a difficult time explaining to procurement officers or officials why FirstNet is the better choice.

If FirstNet drops its price, Verizon will also lower its price and we will have a price war. While this may seem attractive to procurement people, it is not in the best interests of the public safety community. The only solution I see is to spend time educating or at least trying to educate those in charge of procurement. Public safety has enough to do and a FirstNet paper would be viewed by procurement folks as marketing hype rather than factual. Further, in many instances the end-user community is not permitted to even discuss its requirements with procurement.

FirstNet has oversight by the FirstNet Authority and, therefore, the federal government while Verizon does not. FirstNet pricing is published and fixed while Verizon pricing seems to change depending on the circumstances. Verizon cannot offer public safety what FirstNet can. At the moment, in some areas Verizon has better coverage. However, the gap is closing quickly. My belief is that FirstNet will continue to gain users and as more come onboard the agencies they work with will come to understand that interoperability across the network is more important then a few cents price difference and they will switch to FirstNet as well.

It will take a while, but like the 56 states and territories opting in, some at the last minute, FirstNet will end up with all the public safety agencies and the vision that created FirstNet will have been justified. As I said, there is still a lot of work ahead in Chapter Two but there are a host of dedicated people working on the issues. With persistence and the help of the PSTA, the FirstNet Authority, the Public Safety Advisory Council, and NPSTC we will find ways for FirstNet to be truly interoperable—both the network and everything that runs over it.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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