Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Authority Goes International, Federal Agencies Coordinate Rural Broadband Efforts, NPSTC Awards, AT&T 5G Core in MS Azure Cloud

In this week’s Advocate, I will look at The FirstNet Authority’s expanding role as it works with countries around the world. Also this week, several federal organizations have decided to work together on digital-divide issues, while another group of federal agencies appears to be duplicating efforts that have been successful in the private sector, and NPSTC has announced this year’s awards. Then there is AT&T’s 5G in the cloud, and the Microsoft/AT&T agreement for the AT&T 5G core to be hosted in the Microsoft Azure cloud.

FirstNet and International Public-Safety Broadband Systems 

The FirstNet Authority, created by the same 2012 law as the FirstNet network, has been overseeing the FirstNet (Built with AT&T) build-out and has reinvested funds into the network for enhancements such as adding 5G capabilities to the FirstNet core and adding deployables to the fleet.

Though it has drawn little attention, The FirstNet Authority has also been working with countries around the globe. Its collaboration with other countries makes sense when you recognize that FirstNet is one of the first operational nationwide public-safety broadband networks. The objectives for working together are to discuss successes, failures, lessons-learned, and experiences with others and to broaden the market for public-safety devices designed for broadband networks wherever they are. This collaboration is expected to grow the volume of the public-safety device market as more countries deploy their first-responder systems.

This activity is aimed at the grassroots level in each country where design work, build-out, and implementation will reside. As early as 2016, FirstNet held a meeting that included representatives from the United Kingdom, Canada, and one other country.

These meetings continued annually with a growing number of nations and attendees. By 2019, nineteen countries and more than eighty attendees spent two days in Boulder, Colorado exchanging ideas and learning from each other. 

At that time, it was decided to meet annually and to call both the group and the event the “Global Public Safety Operators Conference” (GPSOC). The GPSOC anticipates its participation numbers to continue to grow. About fifty countries are working at some level toward providing broadband communications for their public-safety organizations; 25 share information, experiences, and lessons learned through the GPSOC Committee.

The 2020 meeting to be held in Amsterdam was postponed because of Covid-19 and no meeting is scheduled for 2021 since there are still travel concerns in many parts of the world. Tentatively, the next meeting will be held in the spring of 2022 and will potentially be hosted in The Netherlands. While yearly meetings will move from country to country as systems evolve, dialogue will continue among participants through one-on-one phone calls, conference calls, and email conversations.

Brad Morell, who coordinates this program on behalf of The FirstNet Authority, made it clear that the GPSOC is not about The FirstNet Authority being king of the hill, rather, it is about all the countries interacting with and learning from each other. He feels there is much to be learned by everyone in the group by sharing in other’s mistakes and wins, financing and establishing networks, and acquiring devices and applications.

Brad spent many years in fire service and law enforcement, and then worked and lived in several countries helping them formulate their plans. He is based in the Reston FirstNet Authority offices and works closely with the technology and operations element in Boulder, Colorado. 

From the beginning, it was determined that the GPSOC would be made up of only government executives directly involved in public-safety broadband deployments and that vendors would not be permitted. Venders were excluded since, at any given time, one or more member countries might be in the process of purchasing equipment and/or services. To ensure procurement-sensitive information is protected, it made sense to limit who will attend meetings and communicate among participating countries. The GSPOC also decided it does not need a formal structure. Even so, members work together as each country rolls out its public-safety broadband systems.

Currently, most participants are from countries involved in network deployments. Brad hopes to involve many public-safety people so they, too, can share information. He acknowledges that while The FirstNet Authority can help other countries and their public-safety personnel, the United States can also benefit from its association with them. He commented that there are many lessons to be learned in these meetings and many of these can come from first responders’ experiences.

Sharing information is invaluable to first responders who will be called across borders to assist their neighbors and countries on the other side of the world. For example, Israel and Mexico have sent their search and rescue teams to Florida to look for survivors alongside Metro-Dade and other agencies. The GPSOC is an informal gathering of government executives and does not coordinate with FCC programs. Having heard about the experiences of others in similar situations, members try to be aware of the activities of other organizations

The FirstNet Authority’s charter does not call for working with other countries, however, it does not rule it out either. The GPSOC provides a valuable forum for countries working with network design and build-out and, hopefully, for their public-safety communities.

I will continue to follow the GPSOC’s progress. Some countries will rely on sharing commercial broadband networks with public safety and, it is hoped, they will provide priority and preemption. Other countries are taking different paths and, at this point, it appears Canada is moving toward a combination of Band 14 broadband and existing commercial networks. Since we share a border with Canada, The FirstNet Authority is working with Canada, especially in the area of cross-border Band 14 communications.

I think coordinating and learning from others that are also pursuing broadband systems for public safety will have a positive impact on all the countries and their public-safety personnel. The FirstNet Authority is to be commended for this initiative. As Brad said, not only is The FirstNet Authority assisting other countries, other countries are providing valuable information to The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T).

Rural Broadband: Some Federal Organizations Working Together 

A while back, in an Advocate article entitled, “The Headless Horseman,” I wrote about many, perhaps too many, different federal organizations providing uncoordinated grants and loans in an effort to help solve rural and poverty-level broadband issues in America.

Last week, it was announced that three of these agencies have pledged to work together and share information. These include Agriculture, the NTIA, and the FCC, which account for a large number of grants, loans, and other funds for broadband. Several bills have come before Congress to create an organization within the federal government to coordinate all broadband activities including rural broadband, but none of these bills have yet passed.

These three federal agencies that fund and support broadband build-outs appear to have come to the realization that they need to coordinate their activities to avoid duplication, waste, or conflicts. In this regard, I would like to commend FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel for her long-standing support of improving broadband service in rural America. This is a great first step, but I hope for passage of federal legislation that will include a more definitive way to manage how funds are allocated. With this action, perhaps we will finally close the digital divide instead of struggling with it in a not-very-effective, piecemeal manner.

I also read that many people in the position to make decisions believe the $65 Billion for rural broadband included in the infrastructure package, which has not yet been voted on, seem to believe all available funds should be spent for fiber to the premise. However, I believe, especially in rural areas, the cost of running fiber far outweighs any advantages it would provide.

There are so many options for closing the digital divide that each area lacking broadband service needs to be evaluated to define a logical combination of fiber, wide-area wireless broadband, in-building Wi-Fi, and perhaps satellite systems. Fiber to the premise does not provide the wide-area coverage needed by students, farmers, and scores of people living in rural areas who, like the rest of us, want broadband communications at home, where they work, and when they are out and about. 

The Other Side of the Coin

On the other hand, some federal agencies are funding projects that will simply duplicate what has been done in the private sector. Before grants are awarded, funding agencies need to examine what is already available from companies that are spending their own $Millions on research and development. 

For example, a grant was recently awarded to work on solving interoperability issues between FirstNet push-to-talk and land mobile radio systems. Some investigation by the funding agency would have revealed that at least two companies are already providing push-to-talk interoperability bridging for all forms of land mobile radio push-to-talk including P-25 trunking, P-25 conventional, analog, and even Digital Mobile Radio (DMR).

The funding agency correctly identified the issue, but if it had engaged with FirstNet (Built with AT&T)-certified push-to-talk vendors, it would have found out what had already been done and what remained to be done or how FirstNet PTT could be included in the solution set. 

Funding agencies should first communicate with people and companies in the private sector to learn what is available and what is being developed. Then, instead of issuing grants for mostly smaller companies to reinvent the wheel, they could work with private entities already solving the problems they have identified. 

The reality is that the work to provide solutions has either been done or is underway using private funds from the vendor community. Why is the federal government spending our money in this way?

NPSTC Announces Award Honorees

Most of the people associated with the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) donate their time, many while holding down full-time jobs. The NPSTC Governing Board announced this year’s honorees during its June 7, 2021 meeting. The awards were presented during this meeting with the exception of the Richard DeMello award, which will be presented during the Radio Club of America Banquet in November.

The Richard DeMello award is NPSTC’s highest award. This year’s honoree, Jim Goldstein, played a pivotal role in convincing Congress to repeal the T-Band giveback that would have left eleven major metro areas scrambling to vacate the 470–512-MHz band. This band is critical to many agencies in these metro areas for operation of their land mobile radio communications systems. If the T-Band repeal had not been passed, agencies would have been left without spectrum alternatives and with no funding to move off the spectrum. This well-deserved award will be presented to Jim in recognition of his dedication to and professional leadership in local, state, and national public-safety communities. 

Chief Kevin McGinnis received the Chairman’s award for extraordinary leadership in his roles as past chairman of SAFECOM, member of the FirstNet board of directors, and vice-chairman of the NPSTC Governing Board. Chief McGinnis is a previous recipient of the DeMello award (2017).

The Lifetime Achievement award was presented to Chief Ray Lehr in recognition of his fifty years of service to public-safety communications, his influence on policy, and his excellent volunteer work. 

The Leadership Award was bestowed on Don Root, the NPSTC Spectrum Chair, and the DJ Atkinson Technical Award went to Michael Wilhelm for his work with NIST in Boulder, Chief Policy and Licensing Division of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

The final award, the Officers Special Award, went to NTIA’s Dawn Ober who, for years, has been the go-to-person for committee leadership and meeting management. 

I want to thank all these people for dedicating so much of their time to working for the betterment of the public-safety community. 

AT&T 5G Core in MS Azure Cloud

For the last few years, storage of information and data in the “cloud” has been hyped as the future of computing. Another new phrase is “at the edge of the network,” which means providing data and information services at the edges of network coverage far away from the heart of the network. The rationale is that storing data at the network’s edge results in faster access to that data and reduced traffic over the entire network.

Most cloud providers, including AWS, Google, IBM, and Microsoft, continue to tout cloud-based computing and now cloud-based operation of wireless networks as the wave of the future.

AT&T and Microsoft recently announced they are working together with Microsoft’s AZURE cloud to see how it performs with the AT&T commercial 5G rollout. According to Urgent Communications, AT&T claims moving its commercial 5G core to the cloud does not have any effect on the FirstNet network or core. These will continue to be the terrestrial network they were originally designed and implemented to be. The FirstNet network is a highly secure network dedicated to first responders. 

We will follow this move to the cloud by AT&T and others. Again, the purpose of this venture is for both organizations to learn more about cloud-based network operations and to verify they will not affect the FirstNet network.

Winding Down

Last week, I mentioned the condo collapse in Florida and the great work search and rescue personnel are doing. I also said I assumed FirstNet was helping provide interoperable communications at the scene of this disaster.

During the July 4th weekend, we were searching for some news among the major networks’ many holiday specials on our cable system and we came upon “NewsNation,” which is new programming on WGN, and we watched for a couple of hours. NewsNation’s report on the Surfside incident was lengthy, fairly in-depth, and well done. The on-scene reporter describing activities at the site was standing just to the right of a FirstNet Cell On Wheels (COW) and everyone who was tuned in saw a FirstNet COW in operation. Its satellite dish was up and aimed and the tower was raised. It was obvious that the COW was in service providing FirstNet communications at the incident. Further, as we continued watching other reports, we realized there had not been any political news, which was a refreshing change.

Finally, this this week we received updates on FirstNet usage and build-out. The latest numbers indicate that more than 15,000 agencies are signed up for FirstNet, more than 2.2 million users are on the network, and, according to AT&T, build-out is 90% complete. Some of the remaining sites will be difficult to build because they are in remote locations and some do not have access to power or broadband fiber. 

AT&T anticipates it will finish the first five-year portion of the contract, which is to build out the network, before the end date. However, it should be noted that the “end date” does not mean an end to AT&T adding more outside-of and in-building sites, nor does it mean AT&T will stop making its 5G network available to public safety as it continues its 5G build. 

As I have said before, I have never seen a cellular broadband network that has been deemed “finished.” Between The FirstNet Authority and AT&T, I am certain we will see a continuation of the work being done to enhance what has already become a very robust network.

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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