Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet and WiFi, FCC to License 4-9 GHz Spectrum to States

I have several things on my mind this week. The first concerns how WiFi fits into FirstNet communications. The second is the sudden decision by the FCC Chairman, who seems to have the votes, to license the 4.9-GHz spectrum currently licensed to multiple public-safety agencies under FCC Part 90, to the individual states. To understand what might happen if the spectrum is handed over to the states, we will look at the last time the FCC followed this path and licensed a block of 700-MHz Land Mobile Radio (LMR) spectrum to the states.

Finally, I wonder what the FCC is trying to do at this month’s FCC open meeting. At this time, the public-safety community is heavily engaged in protecting us on many different fronts including the Covid-19 pandemic, horrendous wildfires, an abnormal number of hurricanes, and civil unrest with rioting and looting. Yet this month, the FCC wants to make it even more difficult for public safety by taking away roughly 50 MHz of spectrum it has been using since 2002. What is the rush to take back spectrum that is needed today and, more importantly, will be needed to accommodate wireless technology advances? Why now when so many issues threaten to overwhelm the first-responder community? Why now when public safety is facing difficult challenges on multiple fronts? #Whatstherush?

FirstNet and WiFi

Apparently, there is some confusion about how WiFi fits into FirstNet communications as evidenced during the virtual IWCE conference when someone asked, “What are your thoughts on when AT&T automatically moves users to one of its hotspots (i.e., stadium/airport/McDonalds/etc.), a FirstNet device is automatically moved to a WiFi hotspot, effectively removing priority/preemption, encryption, etc. features of FirstNet. Does it now become a training issue for first responders to turn off WiFi?” I don’t believe the question was answered satisfactorily so I will respond here.

First, I am surprised that no one answered this question. A WiFi hotspot or access point is intended to serve the last 100 feet or so, since WiFi is mostly used for indoor broadband or, more recently, as a hotspot around a public-safety vehicle. 

A FirstNet user who connects via a WiFi access point is connected to the FirstNet network, not the commercial AT&T network. FirstNet’s network is made up of all of AT&T’s existing LTE (and soon 5G) spectrum as well as Band 14’s 20 MHz of spectrum assigned to FirstNet. When users with a FirstNet Subscriber Identity Module (called a “black SIM”) connect to the network, they are routed through the FirstNet side of the backhaul to the FirstNet-only Core (brains) and then the call or data session is handed over to the FirstNet network. Users may, in fact, share WiFi or an LTE band with commercial customers but once a FirstNet user is connected to the FirstNet network, s/he is on the FirstNet-only network. 

For example, I have a Sierra Wireless MG-90 with a FirstNet SIM installed in my vehicle and the Sierra Wireless router provides a WiFi bubble around the vehicle. The bubble is encrypted and once I access the WiFi bubble, the router sends my call over the FirstNet network. If I am in a public environment, once I log onto a WiFi access point or hotspot using my FirstNet credentials, I am connected to the secure FirstNet network and backend. 

FirstNet has been designed to ensure that every FirstNet user has access to all FirstNet capabilities including preemption and priority and this will remain true as we move to 5G with FirstNet. Even though a FirstNet user may be signed into an AT&T 5G site, since the device contains a FirstNet SIM, the call is handled and routed over the FirstNet network. While the radio at the cell site may service both AT&T and FirstNet customers, the routing and access to services are very different. 

FCC to License 4.9-GHz Spectrum to States

The Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA) was recently formed with the goal of holding onto the 4.9-GHz spectrum the public-safety community has been using since 2002. Shortly before the announcement of the PSSA’s formation, the FCC issued its sixth Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the 4.9-GHz spectrum indicating it wants to open up use of the 50 MHz of spectrum to other users because, according to the FCC, not enough public-safety agencies are using it.

One of the PSSA’s recommendations was for the FCC to license the entire 50 MHz of spectrum to The FirstNet Authority, which would then review existing use of the band, look at future technology potential, and then figure out how to both keep existing users in place and upgrade the spectrum for newer technologies over time. The PSSA has been publicizing its goals and has issued a mission statement, it set up an online petition to keep the spectrum for exclusive use by the public-safety community, and it is now requesting signatures from public-safety personnel and others who also believe that keeping this spectrum for public-safety-only use is important, especially as the world is moving from LTE to 5G and soon to 6G. 

Only a few short weeks after the PSSA began its campaign, the FCC Chairman announced that at its open meeting on September 30, 2020, the FCC would pass a rulemaking turning the spectrum over to the states and then follow that with yet another notice of proposed rulemaking to somehow grandfather in the public-safety community. There are many issues with this new tactic. Primary among them is that when reviewing the many comments filed in response to the previous six proposed rulemakings, none of us have been able to find any suggestion that this spectrum be licensed to the states.

The FCC’s theory is that the states would be able to lease the spectrum to a master leaseholder that would then be in charge of sub-leasing the spectrum to others. If the NPRM to protect public-safety users were to be passed by the FCC some time in the future, the master leaseholder might also be required to maintain, in some fashion, priority access for existing public-safety license holders. There are a number of problems with this. First, of course, is that radio waves do not stop at state borders. Next is the question of how many different technologies might be deployed and mixed within this 50 MHz of spectrum. And ultimately, what role would a state play when interference or other issues were raised by those using the spectrum? 

State-Licensed Spectrum

Some may see licensing states for use of a specific segment of spectrum as a first, but it was tried with a varied amount of success when the FCC allocated some 700-MHz spectrum that was created by moving existing TV stations. The total amount of spectrum allocated for public-safety land mobile radio use was 24 MHz in 2000, 10-percent for use by the fifty states and the District of Columbia. It further set out the following set of guidelines:

  1.  June 13, 2014, the state must provide, or be prepared to provide, substantial service to one-third of the state’s population. 
  2. June 13, 2019, the state must provide, or be prepared to provide, substantial service to two-thirds of the state’s population.

Results were mixed. Some states moved forward with plans and implementations, but other states, including California, made big plans for the spectrum. California soon found that replacing the California Highway Patrol (CHP) low-band (46 MHz) system with 700 MHz would require a huge number of new towers and sites. California ended up using some of the spectrum for its next-generation vehicular repeaters (PAC-RT) and turned the rest over to local agencies. 

While it is difficult to track all the states and how they used or returned their spectrum, indications are that the idea of providing spectrum for use on a statewide basis had been met with mixed results and while there are a few success stories, there were more turn-backs than wins. While the idea of handing spectrum over to states sounds interesting, it is fraught with issues. Since radio waves do not stop at borders, NPSTC, APCO, and the FCC have worked for many years on spectrum border issues between the United States and Canada and the United States and Mexico.

On our southern border, San Diego had to wait for many years before it could gain access to some of the spectrum that had been allocated to public-safety because of the lack of an agreement with Mexico and continued interference. Only recently, Verizon filed complaints about interference from a broadband network south of the border that was causing interference to many Verizon users in Texas even though the two countries had worked together in an effort to mitigate inference issues. It turned out that the next administration in Mexico was not fully aware of the terms of these agreements and had licensed a broadband network operator to build out in areas and on spectrum that was not agreed to by both nations.

You may also be aware that there are a few areas on the Canadian border where our public-safety agencies are using 220-MHz spectrum. This spectrum is not part of “normal” public-safety allocations but there was no other way to avoid cross-border interference. 

Even when the states were given nationwide access to 700-MHz land mobile radio spectrum so each state would be using the same channels and band plans, there were still issues with other states that had to be resolved. It appears this FCC’s plan is not about using the same technology and the same user-community from one state to another. Once a state signs the spectrum lease, all it will care about is how much money it can collect. All the nuances of actual management of the spectrum will be up to the master leaseholder which, in turn, may lease spectrum to others. The FCC Chairman’s vision appears to be to let others determine the highest and best use for the 4.9-GHz spectrum and simply wash his hands of it. 

All this makes sense when you consider that this is September 2020, two months from an election. After Presidential elections, even if the incumbent wins, many FCC appointees tender their resignations either because they are ready to venture out to make their fortunes working in industry or because they are eyeing a move into politics. It is safe to say that the three Commissioners who will be voting to let the states deal with the 4.9-GHz problems and issues will be long gone when it is determined that what they created is neither feasible nor viable. 

If the FCC takes this action at its September meeting, it will signal that this FCC does not feel the need to support the public-safety community. Members of the PSSA who have spoken during the IWCE virtual conference and at various webinars have stated their case well. Because technology is moving at such a fast pace, public safety needs to retain all its spectrum assets and not lose or have to share any of them with others who have vastly different requirements. The final message for people involved with public-safety communications is that we only have a short period of time to make our voices heard. FirstNet was created as a result of the multitude of public-safety, vendor, and government voices being raised to let those in power know the network was a necessity. I and others don’t believe public safety will be served by the FCC Chairman’s new course of action for the 4.9-GHz spectrum needed to satisfy public-safety communications requirements and our voices must be heard now.

Winding Down

FirstNet One, the blimp (aerostat) that is a public-safety cell site in the air, was put into service over Cameron Parish in Louisiana after hurricane Laura did its damage to the area. When in use, the airship is tethered at heights of up to 1,500 feet and it can remain in the air for up to two weeks. FirstNet One can provide a wider coverage area than a Cell On Wheels (COW) by virtue of it being airborne and it is the seventy-sixth member of the FirstNet deployable fleet. Since the beginning, deployables have been a vital part of the FirstNet plan to provide aid during emergencies and for monitoring large gatherings. FirstNet has responded to a variety of incidents and events with deployables. 

There will be renewed activity by many within the public-safety community as we draw closer to the FCC’s open meeting September 30, 2020. A number of webinars are scheduled between now and then, and today I will be presenting a webinar concerning the current status of 4.9-GHz spectrum, the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance’s effort to keep all its spectrum in the hands of the public-safety community, and what the FCC is up to. As an optimist, I am hopeful that public safety will prevail, but as a realist, I am also looking beyond the FCC’s pending action and thinking about what can be done next to rescind any action that is not in keeping with this spectrum remaining in the hands of the public-safety community.

It seems every week our first-responder community is faced with new incidents and emergencies that put them in harm’s way. The fires in the West have been deadly and are far from contained, meanwhile, weather radar of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico does not bode well for our costal areas, and the virus continues to take its toll. First responders are being asked to become superhumans moving from one incident to another with no downtime and, so far, they continue to amaze as we wonder if we could continue on and for how long if we were in their shoes. 

One advantage we have been able to give our first responders after the tragic events of 9/11 is to finally be able to add to their existing LMR voice systems which, as we all know, are very good for voice but not so good when it comes to out-of-area communications with other agencies. Which is why so many fought for FirstNet, a nationwide broadband network that supports not only push-to-talk and other forms of voice but also data, video, text, and more. 

While we cannot be with them in the field, we know that everyone who contributed over the many years it took to make FirstNet a reality is supporting our first responders with a combination of communications options, better interoperability, and redundancy. However, we are not done yet. Our work will continue as we add Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), move FirstNet users to 5G, and add even more advanced communications capabilities. 

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet and WiFi, FCC to License 4-9 GHz Spectrum to States"

  1. Regarding the Q. of roaming to an AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot at a commercial establishment (inside McDonalds, Home Depot, etc) I think we’re talking apples to oranges here. Nothing to do with a WiFi hotspot being created by an LTE modem on FirstNet. It was my hope and still is, that AT&T would create a virtual FirstNet network across their nationwide network of public AP’s with the FirstNet SSID, and each UE device would have a cert. to get on that network automatically for in-building coverage.

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