Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Authority Appoints CEO, Reality of FirstNet Coverage, T-Band

A few hours before time to email this week’s Advocate I was informed that finally, after what seems forever, The FirstNet Authority has appointed Ed Parkinson to the position of full-time CEO. Ed is not new to either Congress or FirstNet. He began working toward what has become FirstNet when he was a staffer for Rep. King of New York. Ed was one of two staffers who took up the cause for public safety and while those who formed the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) were trying to find their way around the House and Senate, Ed stepped up and assisted both groups by advising which staffers needed to be met with, which Members of Congress needed to be visited, and so much more.

Once FirstNet became a reality, Ed found his way to FirstNet and worked with his Congressional contacts on behalf of FirstNet and the public-safety community. He was promoted to acting CEO and began appearing at events and after major incidents where The FirstNet Authority had not previously had a presence. He has been and will continue to be a true FirstNet believer who is respected by the public-safety community. 

While it may have taken overly long for Ed to be appointed to the full-time role of CEO, both The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T), as well as the entire public-safety community, will be better for it. Ed has dedicated more than ten years to the success of FirstNet and has earned this promotion. I, for one, think the NTIA and The FirstNet Authority got it right.

LTE Coverage

Last week FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and a third-party industry source revealed that Verizon Wireless holds about a 70,000 square-mile 4G coverage advantage nationally, which is far less than what is being touted by Verizon. This is only one survey of many that shows how fast FirstNet is catching up to and, in some areas, surpassing Verizon’s coverage. 

Well before FirstNet, commercial networks published regular press releases updating the number of new cities and square miles they covered and how many Points of Presence (POPs) they served with LTE. When AT&T was awarded the FirstNet contract, Verizon, which had not bothered to bid on the FirstNet contract, claimed it was still the leader in public-safety broadband coverage. This was true in some areas, especially west of the Mississippi, but in others it had been many years since public-safety agencies using the Verizon network had run tests to determine whether other network coverages had caught up. It was simply assumed that Verizon still had the best coverage.

On Verizon’s website this past week, it claimed to provide more than 2.68 million square miles of coverage in the United States. Meanwhile, a senior executive at AT&T recently published an article stating that the 4G coverage area within the United States has expanded to 2.61 million square miles. According to statesymbolodusa.org, the total number of square miles in the United States is 3.797 million miles with much of the difference attributable to what is covered versus what is habitable. He further stated that AT&T’s increase in coverage was primarily driven by the FirstNet contract and AT&T’s commitments to provide FirstNet and Band 14 (the public-safety licensed spectrum). The bottom line is that FirstNet is closing in on the coverage Verizon is claiming.

Back in Time

When The FirstNet Authority awarded the contract for the network to AT&T, there were differences between AT&T and Verizon coverage claims. AT&T claims were based on actual coverage, verified by third parties, and Verizon claims reflected the same coverage tests plus the perceived advantage claimed by Verizon that many public-safety agencies thought was accurate in the absence of any recent comparison tests. 

In some areas there appeared to be a coverage gap between the two networks. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) accepted the challenge to narrow the gap and stepped up its new site build-outs, added Band 14 to existing sites, and beefed up its coverage. In only a few short years, the “real” coverage gap between FirstNet and Verizon was closed. FirstNet also conducted head-to-head coverage tests to verify actual coverage of each network using Sierra Wireless and Cradlepoint vehicular modems that can track simultaneous network coverages during drive tests. 

These dual-SIM devices have proven crucial to drive testing (see my recent drive testing article) and have enabled public-safety agencies and impartial third parties to conduct their own testing. Running drive tests and reviewing the results is an interesting exercise. A year or so ago, an agency that was happy with its Verizon service was convinced to install Sierra Wireless MG-90 dual-network modems in a number of its own vehicles and over a period of up to six months in some cases, these vehicles provided minute-by-minute coverage comparisons. 

Depending on the state, county, or city, results have shown that in some cases FirstNet is on an equal or better footing when it comes to local coverage and in some areas Verizon is better. In a few areas, including some we tested, neither network covered the entire area. In this situation, some agencies have chosen FirstNet as their primary broadband provider and Verizon as a secondary provider on an as-needed basis. In one county, Sierra Wireless was willing to leave its modems in place and they have been monitored over the past year. The results indicate that while FirstNet has improved coverage to the entire county, the number of times modems lose FirstNet coverage and switch to the alternate network has diminished by 30% or 40% and within the next year, assuming FirstNet meets its build-out plans, the county will have the coverage it needs using only FirstNet.

As we continue to perform more drive tests and talk to agencies that are running their own tests, we are finding that improvements in FirstNet coverage are measurable on an almost monthly basis. It is most telling that after running their own tests some agencies that only a few years ago KNEW Verizon had better coverage in their prime coverage area have been startled by the results since their own findings show FirstNet coverage is now equal to or better than Verizon coverage. 

4G and 5G

Commercial broadband network vendors in the United States are now more focused on 5G than on expanding their existing LTE 4G networks. However, since FirstNet is under contract to complete its build-out, AT&T is still concentrating on LTE, especially public-safety Band 14, and then 5G. Now we are seeing almost weekly build-out and coverage press releases from T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon touting how much 5G they are adding. AT&T issues press releases about its 5G build-out, but it is also issuing almost weekly press releases about new and updated cell sites for its LTE network and FirstNet. The lack of press releases from commercial networks about more LTE 4G capability indicates that only FirstNet continues to invest in LTE, primarily to comply with its contract with The FirstNet Authority. 

As a result, most LTE systems appear to be static and little if any new LTE cell sites are being built while commercial networks chase “5G, the next big thing.” However, FirstNet continues its build-out, especially in the western states and in rural America. Meanwhile, the FCC seems to favor 5G build-out in rural areas and is only funding 5G build-outs. The FCC is also confusing the landscape with poor coverage maps (which Congress is attempting to have updated), and it is working with Microsoft to change TV white-space rules so TV white spaces can be used more efficiently in rural areas. 

TV white spaces became a resource a number of years ago when the FCC authorized a WiFi-like service using TV channels not being used by TV broadcast stations in a given area. I find it interesting that while Google pushed the FCC into using TV white spaces, it turned out that there were no TV white spaces available in Google’s hometown and San Francisco. Now the FCC, which says it will fund only 5G in rural areas, is teaming with Microsoft in promoting new rules for TV white spaces in rural America. Yet Congress still has not acted on the public-safety T-Band issue that looms large on the horizon. 

FirstNet is mandated to build out rural areas for first responders, and citizens will be permitted to use idle Band 14 and any other A&T spectrum that is deployed in rural areas. It should be noted that both first responders and citizens are permitted to use broadband devices with a lot more power on Band 14 than on any other LTE or 5G network. FirstNet, along with Assured Wireless, offers a 1.25-Watt device and tests are showing up to an 80% gain in coverage when used on Band 14 and faster data speeds even out to the edge of a cell site where data speeds typically drop off.

I have been suggesting for many years that rural counties and towns combine one or more rural broadband grant available from far too many federal agencies with the FirstNet build-out to gain more rural coverage for students, citizens, businesses, and public safety. There have been a few successes so far but not as many as there should be, and now the FCC, blinded by the light of 5G, appears to be favoring 5G (and TV white spaces) in lieu of FirstNet with LTE networks and a Federal Mandate to cover rural America for first responders, bringing rural citizens and business users along with them.

FirstNet LTE is not going anywhere. Over time, the network will add 5G to LTE first-responder assets but with Band 14 being the core of the public-safety network, I see FirstNet continuing to build out LTE and especially Band 14 while all other networks chase only 5G. It has been stated many times that Band 14 and LTE will be the backbone of the FirstNet network and 5G will be added as it becomes available. However, since 5G will not replace LTE for many years to come, FirstNet LTE coverage will continue to grow while the rest of the industry’s LTE coverage will remain fairly stagnate. 

Public safety has a broadband network that will continue to increase in coverage and public-safety users can count on it to remain viable and know they won’t have to change out devices over and over again. They can stay on FirstNet and when 5G has been proven to be a solid set of technologies, first responders can add dual LTE/5G devices, but they won’t be required to do so until after they decide 5G will add valuable capabilities. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has made it clear that FirstNet LTE with Band 14 will remain the focus of its build-out for the foreseeable future. I don’t expect to see any new press releases from the other network providers about additional LTE build-outs, but I do expect to see press releases from FirstNet on a regular basis indicating where it has added LTE broadband coverage including Band 14. 

IWCE

I just received word that IWCE 2020 has been postponed due to the COVID-19 situation. I have been looking forward to this show for months and had written the following before I received notification of the postponement:

“IWCE has stepped into the void left by APCO when it comes to great communications-centric conference sessions and exhibitors that are focused on all phases of public-safety communications from the Emergency Communications Center (ECC) to the field. Each year they assess where communications technologies are taking us and this year, for example, they have included a section on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) with live demonstrations in the parking lot. 

I see this as the one true, all-about-communications event for public safety and others. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and some of the smaller shows do have communications sessions and exhibitors, but IWCE has become the place to see all the new technologies, devices, and forms of communications being used within the public-safety community.”

It is unfortunate that the event had to be postponed and many of us are disappointed even though we realize that with the spread of the virus, show management at IWCE has taken the prudent course of action. I hope that once COVID-19 is under control they will be able to reschedule the show, especially since I believe this is the only event left that focuses on communications with a renewed emphasis on public-safety communications. I want to thank all the folks who have worked for the past year to make IWCE 2020 a success and hope this will be a postponement and not a cancellation. 

Winding Down

As COVID-19 has begun to take hold in the United States it has started affecting our first responders. It looks like unless we can get a handle on testing and find ways to better inform our first responders of what they are dealing with on their calls, there could be some negative outcomes. We already have both fire and law-enforcement personnel quarantined in Kirkland, Washington, closer to home, a number of fire/EMS folks are quarantined in Scottsdale, Arizona, and there are probably more in other parts of the United States. This could become a crisis on its own if we keep losing our first responders to quarantines. Both the IAFC and the IACP are sending out advisories and I assume the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and fire unions are doing the same. 

It appears to be more important than ever for our great ECC 9-1-1 operators to collect as much information as possible from incoming calls for medical assistance. Some hospitals have established protocols such as a different entrance for citizens showing symptoms of the virus but that does not keep our responders safe. We cannot afford to keep losing them to fourteen days of quarantine to make sure they have not become victims themselves.

A final note for this week’s Advocate. With each passing week, we are coming closer to the deadline for the hundreds of public-safety agencies large and small in eleven major metro areas to be kicked off the T-band. I have written often about this issue and there are ongoing efforts to convince Members of Congress and their staffers to advance the House and Senate T-band bills as passed in both Houses. As time ticks by without a resolution, scores of agencies do not know if they will be able to access the LMR communications systems they are now using, there is no other LMR spectrum to move to, and no one is ready to step up to the $Billions it would cost to relocate all of them if there was any available spectrum.

If you have not done so, send your Representatives and Senators a note, or better yet called them, to say you are in favor of these bills (House H.R. 451 Don’t Break up the T-band Act of 2019 and Senate S. 2748 Don’t Break up the T-band Act of 2019). We need both Houses to pay attention to these two bills and pass them quickly. 

Until next week…

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

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