Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Everywhere, Partnerships (Again)

I just returned from the largest amateur (ham) radio convention in the United States, held each year near Dayton, Ohio or, to be precise, at the Greene County Fairgrounds in Xenia, Ohio. I mention this event for a number of reasons, the first of which is that many of those attending have day jobs working for public safety as sworn personnel or in the IT or communications departments. Many who designed and built the Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems used by public safety today were hams who first experienced communications as a new ham radio operator.

A number of federal government employees and contractors also attend. I was amused that AT&T had a booth in one the buildings and I went to visit it only to find this was the DirectTV group and not the wireless group. The interest in FirstNet was high this year and I had many discussions with those I met about the progress FirstNet and AT&T are making. I especially enjoyed talking with a group of fire and other public safety personnel in a flea market booth. They read my articles and were very interested in my perspective on FirstNet. I also enjoyed talking about the Harris XL-200 4-band handheld I was carrying and my Sonim XP8 phone.

I was happy to see so many pubic safety people there who knew about FirstNet. In previous years they would look confused until FirstNet was explained to them but this year I did not have to do much explaining. When talking with some federal employees and contractors, I learned one of the contractors retired from his federal job and is now a consultant to the same agency. Our discussion was disturbing to say the least. It turns out that the federal government wants to redo its communications contracts and stop using wired connections. This may be the wave of the future, but it appears as though none of those suggesting the changes to the contracts or changes in vendors truly understand that eliminating the need for copper wires is not simply about replacing them with fiber and Voice over IP (VoIP).

The federal agency in charge of contracts seems to think all it has to do is change vendors between now and 2020 and wired communications systems will become a thing of the past. The reality they have not faced yet is that in addition to voice telephony systems in areas that have or will have fiber, it turns out there are hundreds, if not more, copper wire connections to sensors in remote areas including native American lands and other rural places where sensors are needed to provide ongoing monitoring of critical gauges and other things. There are a few in very rural areas that are being reported back via satellite but it appears as if those making these decisions within the federal government don’t have a clue as to how many wired connections will have to remain connected in one fashion or another.

It is not in anyone’s budget to be able to fund alternate methods of transporting this data and this is only the sensors. The federal government, like state and local governments, is using lots of copper wire connections for command and control of radios, receivers, alarms, alerting devices, and much more. When copper goes away and there is no way to connect these devices, then what? Further on in this conversation, I broached the idea of additional federal partnerships and was told this particular agency and others would welcome the opportunity to form partnerships to solve these problems. I then described the requirement by law that FirstNet cover rural America as well as tribal lands and how this might be a way to replace copper wires to the sensors using the Internet of Things (IoT), which I will forever refer to as machine-to-machine communications. It turns out this agency has a person on staff who already interfaces with FirstNet the Authority and I suggested a meeting with the FirstNet-savvy staffer, FirstNet the Authority, and FirstNet (built by AT&T). I hope they end up putting together this type of meeting and coming to some conclusions about how different agencies and authorities can work together to solve common problems.

Public-Private and Public-Public Partnerships

As technology gallops forward at an increasing pace, it is almost impossible for any one company, agency, department, division, or other entity to keep up with it all. Federal organizations that are subject to long budget cycles, with no guarantee that the next budget will be kind to them, are simply not prepared to make major technology shifts simply because those who run the federal purchasing process want to move into new contracts or find other ways to do business. It took years for this one agency to obtain funding to deploy the needed sensors and place them where they provide the best possible information. It is impossible for them to simply convert all of them from wired access to something else in a span of less than two years and going it alone.

I have to believe this agency is only one of many in the same predicament, yet typically, agencies do not reach out to other agencies to determine if there is some synergy in moving forward with technology changes. I am not suggesting that all agencies that need communications in remote places or that need communications services where there are none, simply reach for a phone (oops, not wired, I guess) and talk to FirstNet and/or AT&T. What I am suggesting is that there are number of organizations that don’t seem to talk to each other yet when it comes to technology upgrades, many if not all of them have the same issues.

It is strange to me that in this day and age there are not better ways to list your technology problems and see if other divisions or organizations have related issues that could be solved and solutions that could be put into place sharing the expenses. It is almost like we need a dating site for public-private, private-private, and public-public partnerships. If you simply reach out to AT&T (FirstNet) for example, the chances of conversing with someone on the phone or at a given email address who is directly connected to those working on a similar partnership or system are slim to none. Likewise, reaching out to someone within a given federal agency who will not simply respond with, “It’s not my job or it requires someone with a higher paygrade than me,” is, again, something I would not want to bet on.

We, the federal government, states, and locals, have a tendency to spend more money than a project should cost, to spin wheels and not gain any traction, and simply give up and continue doing things the old, proven way. There is certainly something to be said for doing things the way they have always been done, but we live in technology-rich times and there are new ways to accomplish the same things, work with others on related projects, and perhaps find better and more cost-effective ways of achieving the goals of all.

One example of such success is that as land mobile radio became more widely used in public safety, and as interoperability issues arose, several solutions were applied to solve the problem. The first called for the vendor community to build multiple-channel radios so interoperability could be achieved from county to county, city to city, state to state. Then came trunked radio systems with groups for a variety of agencies so they could coordinate when needed. Now LTE is nationwide and provides a common data and video platform and, perhaps in the future, other mission-critical forms of communications. States put in entire statewide systems, NPSTC, the FCC, and others hammered out nationwide interoperability channels for VHF, UHF, 700-MHz and 800-MHz LMR systems, and Motorola, Harris, and a few others have started building and shipping multiple-band LMR radios. None of these solutions, on their own, will solve all of the interoperability problems. However, between FirstNet and advances being made in LMR radio systems, the number of incidents where interoperability is a major issue are being reduced.

Winding Down

Going it alone is no longer a good option. FirstNet happened because all the public safety community, law, fire, and EMS, came together, as did state governors, city mayors, and others. They pooled their resources and had a common goal as they went after and came home with the spectrum and even some funding. The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (built by AT&T) have a strong partnership that appears to be working well, public safety users on FirstNet are learning, AT&T is filling in coverage gaps and rolling out 5G for capacity and speed. This model should signal to others that partnerships work and work well.

Yes, some have failed, most notably when two large companies decided to partner and then did not follow through. FirstNet will solve many interoperability issues for first responders but it can also be part of the solution to extend the wireless IoT to and from sensors as mentioned above, to cover rural areas with broadband not only for first responders but also for schools, students at school and at home, libraries, medical needs, and much more. There is funding waiting to be applied for, and people who know how to go about putting things together so they last. However, one piece missing is a brokerage house for partnerships between the government entities and the private sector.

With all the technology advances there must be better ways to discover how agencies and companies can work together to share costs, technology advances, and results. FirstNet does not have to be the only way to partner but it certainly makes sense to take advantage of a nationwide broadband provider that is permitted to offer services not only for first responders but to citizens, businesses, and others as well. FirstNet serves as both a partner and a great example of how partnerships are meant to work and what they can accomplish.

NOTE: Public Safety Advocate will not be published next week as I will be traveling out of the country and will resume upon my return the first week of June! Remember Memorial Day and why we celebrate all who have sacrificed so much so we can live free!

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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