Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet, FCC, Congress, HPUE

FirstNet

I have been following FirstNet (Built with AT&T) COVID-19 activities closely and from what I have seen, FirstNet has really stepped up. When we were coaxing FirstNet through federal red tape, we knew we had to be successful because we would forever face incidents and disasters that would require much better interoperable public-safety communications. With the need to move units and personnel from coast to coast and border to border came the need to communicate with each other.

We were not thinking about a disaster that would cover the entire United States yet that is what we are facing today. The good news is that during the past three-plus years, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has been surpassing its required deliverables in all aspects of network build-out as well as with numbers of subscribers and agencies signed up and number of devices certified on the network. Recent reports show that today there are more than 12,000 agencies and 1.2 million devices online. A recent article stated that even during the first six months of 2019, FirstNet outperformed expectations by approximately 196% of projected targets. 

The article goes on to state that as of March 2020, FirstNet network deployment is 80% complete, which is a full year ahead of FirstNet Authority requirements. A quote further down in the article states: “The current pandemic is magnifying the need for our country’s first responders to have access to an interoperable broadband network, and FirstNet provides that solution.” As I said a few weeks ago, the number of agencies and devices added to FirstNet since this pandemic descended upon the United States has increased significantly. FirstNet has really stepped up to help provide the best possible communications on a nationwide basis. It is one thing to be able to respond to wildland fires on the west coast, tornadoes in middle America, or major hurricanes on the gulf and east coasts but FirstNet has responded heroically to the unforeseen need for interoperable communications nationwide.

I suspect one reason for the increase in FirstNet use can be attributed to concerns about how Internet, cable, and wireless broadband connections will hold up as the nation shifts from major companies with fiber and lots of bandwidth to work-at-home, school-at-home situations in which most people have limited access to high bandwidth. FirstNet has several things going for it when the Internet and networks begin to slow because of the shift in demand.

First, the Band 14 public-safety spectrum provided in the FirstNet legislation is primarily for public safety. I say “primarily” because in normal times AT&T is permitted by law to use Band 14 for non-public-safety customers on a secondary basis. If public safety’s demand for access increases in a given area, FirstNet takes over the entire Band 14 for that area and commercial, secondary traffic is rerouted to other AT&T spectrum. Next, FirstNet users have access to all of AT&T’s LTE and 5G spectrum with full priority and preemption. This means if public safety is faced with a major incident that requires access to an extraordinary amount of spectrum in a given area, it is available.

FirstNet is the only network in the United States that offers public-safety access to all LTE and 5G spectrum available on the network and exclusive access to Band 14 in dire situations. Even if the wireless broadband networks become overloaded, first responders will be able to communicate via voice, push-to-talk, text, video, and data services. Fortunately, the demand for data did not, to my knowledge, bring any network to its knees. However, this increased demand has slowed a number of them and some streaming services had to stop streaming HD-quality video in order to serve their customer base. FirstNet has not been faced with any slowdowns on the network. This is no wonder since FirstNet is a network built for public safety and it is the only network that belongs to public safety. 

The Federal Communications Commission

We ended the month of April still following the medical and scientific community guidelines concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ended April by passing two issues that will probably come back to bite those within the critical-communications communities and, for that matter, every smartphone and tablet user. The first vote was to permit unlicensed WiFi 6 use within the 6-GHz band, which is heavily used for critical-communications microwave. The FCC seems to believe that assigning WiFi 6 spectrum allocations with the use of a database will prevent any type of interference. It missed the fact that broadband stations sometimes use mobile microwave devices when they transmit remotely. How will you protect them from WiFi 6 interference if you don’t know where these units will set up and transmit?

The second vote, which has been contested by the Department of Justice, was to permit Ligado to launch a 5G network for Internet of Things (IoT) use. The band approved by this FCC is the same band that many warned the previous FCC could pose major threats to the GPS system that is used by a variety of agencies including first responders and it is a key element for 9-1-1 location information and many smartphone applications. 

In a previous Tell it like it is column, I wrote about the long-lasting negative implications of use of this band for 5G and IoT not only for critical-communications users but also for many federal and state agencies as well as every person within the United States who relies on their smartphone, tablet, or navigation system for accurate location information. The sad part of these recent votes is that if there are issues with interference with microwave in the 6-GHz band or issues with the GPS system failing because of interference from the new 5G network, those at the FCC who passed these actions will be long gone and won’t be looking back at the results of their actions.

Both of these FCC actions are related. The 6-GHz unlicensed band will use an automated system for spectrum assignment which, I would assume, would require accurate GPS location data to determine WiFi 6 allocations. If Ligado’s 5G system interferes with our GPS system, it could certainly impact the accuracy of Wi-Fi 6 placement allocations. Often an action that seems plausible in the planning stages turns out to have negative consequences when implemented that were not anticipated or perhaps FCC staff engineers had not evaluated.

Many in the public-safety community have experience with negative consequences. On example was when the precursor to Nextel convinced Congress and the FCC to convert 800-MHz channels used by Specialized Mobile Radio systems (SMR) to cellular channels so Nextel could compete with existing cellular companies. Nextel’s sites were mostly low-level sites and when public-safety users on their own licensed 800-MHz channels were close to a Nextel tower, their receivers were swamped by the Nextel system. This led to years of litigation and Nextel, then Sprint after it acquired Nextel, ended up spending $billions to relocate many public-safety systems. This effort took years to complete and caused a number of severe congestion issues for the public-safety community.  

What the FCC has not done but needs to do, is to vacate any orders or thoughts about making changes to the 4.9-GHz band, 50 MHz of which is now dedicated to public safety. Due to current FCC activity in this band, the public-safety community is waiting to see if the FCC plans to usurp this spectrum. In the meantime, there will be no new agencies moving onto this band even though there is pent-up demand for point-to-point and other uses of this WiFi-type, reserved-for-public-safety-only spectrum. Further, the FCC has not lifted the freeze on issuing licenses for a part of the 800-MHz band that has been in limbo for a long time now. It seems today’s FCC acts only on items requested by the business community and not items vitally important to the critical-communications community including first responders and many others. 

Congress

While the FCC took actions at the end of April (both of which I strongly disagree with), Congress did nothing to help critical-communications users. In a recent Advocate I discussed the urgent need for Congress to repeal the provision in the law that created FirstNet that is slated to go into effect next year requiring the eleven major metro areas to vacate their use of the T-Band (470-512 MHz). Many organizations and even federal government agencies have notified Congress that repeal of the T-Band giveback is vital for public safety in these eleven major metro areas if they are to provide reliable communications on a day-to-day basis and during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Likewise, Congress has not acted on funding the Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) buildout or elevate emergency communications call takers and dispatchers nationwide to first-responder status. Some states have elevated these dedicated public servants but this needs to be done on a nationwide basis. Today they are being called on to help those responding to EMS and other citizen’s calls and are going the extra mile to try to determine if first responders are heading to a home or business where someone is infected with or has been exposed to COVID-19, while at the same time keeping themselves and their co-workers safe. While these have been high-stress jobs, stress levels have increased with the pandemic and it is only right to recognize these people. They handle the collection and transmission of information and with their great work they arm first responders with the most complete information that can be gleaned from callers.

It does not take much to attach one or more of these bills to COVID-19-related bills. The T-Band repeal will not cost the federal government any money since attempts to auction this spectrum will not attract any bidders and will cause major communications problems for a large number of first responders.

One would think that while Congress is having the feds print money by the bushel full, these three bills could be passed with little or no dissent since they are all designed to provide better communications for those on the front lines putting themselves in harm’s way handling far too many virus cases. And in an economy that is suffering badly, the NG911 funding bill to upgrade existing 9-1-1 centers to broadband technologies would result in the creation of new jobs. 

More Congress

It fascinates me that FCC Commissioners called foul on the FCC statement this week that broadband is available today for all Americans. We all know this is a false statement. If this was true, rural school-age children would be able to join schooling-at-home sessions and it would not be necessary for Congress to consider putting forth a plan to spend $80 billion to expand rural broadband service.

On the upside, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is new interest on the Hill in addressing the lack of rural broadband access in many areas. Last May, a bill was introduced in the House (H.R.2661) entitled, “Reprioritizing Unserved Rural Areas and Locations for Broadband Act of 2019” or “The Rural Broadband Act of 2019.” This bill was sent to committee but no action has been taken. On the last day of April 2020, top House Democrats expanded this vision to connect all Americans to affordable broadband. This plan would allocate $80 billion to this effort and it includes “Dig Once,” which promotes installation of broadband conduit during construction of any road receiving federal funding and more. Members of the Rural Broadband Task Force are heading up this effort.

The rationale for this bill was summed up as follows:

“Just as the Rural Electrification Act made electricity accessible and affordable to all Americans, the plan we are announcing today will make broadband accessible and affordable to all Americans,” said House Majority Whip Clyburn, father of former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. “As we see millions of our fellow Americans unable to telework, learn remotely, or access telehealth because they lack broadband, now is the time to act.”

It is not clear if this bill will pass or if the Senate will pass a similar bill, nor is it clear at this point if this bill will consolidate the $billions of federal monies already set aside by too many federal agencies. I would like to see funding for a central clearinghouse for rural broadband. All funding already committed would be turned over to this group and a steering committee would work with the states and prioritize what needs to be done. The FCC $9 billion for 5G-only for rural broadband as well as NTIA’s seemingly love of fiber to the home funding would be incorporated into whatever this bill produces. 

It appears the COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on the lack of rural broadband as I had hoped. The challenge is to keep up the momentum. You might recall from last week’s Advocate that although the Murrah Federal Building bombing twenty-three years ago was the beginning of widespread recognition of the lack of public-safety communications interoperability, it took at least three more disasters to convince the federal government to fix the problem. After this pandemic, I will be sorely disappointed if we cannot finally resolve rural broadband deficiencies in less time than it took for FirstNet to be up and running.

High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) 

As we remain quarantined as required by law and common sense, two of us in the Phoenix area have developed a plan we are in the process of implementing. Both of us have Sierra Wireless MG-90 mobile devices in our vehicles and both are equipped for FirstNet. We decided it would be a worthwhile project to drive test as much of Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, and perhaps other cities and towns using the standard MG-90s. Once we have plotted as much of the area as possible (gated communities etc. prevent drive testing some areas), we will compile a master coverage map and note where FirstNet coverage is either non-existent or does not provide the needed bandwidth for data and video transmission. 

Once this task is completed, we will hopefully have Assured Wireless and FirstNet-approved HPUE installed and integrated with the MG-90s and we will retest questionable areas, adding HPUE test results to the overall coverage map of the area. Since there is only one of us in each vehicle and we stay connected via cell phone and tablets to the rest of the world, we are able to accomplish a lot of testing and still take care of day-to-day business. Phoenix is a large area and it will be a while before this project is complete. We have been stopping and logging additional test data using Cell Info and when we are in a suspect area, we run data up and down tests to verify network speeds. There are folks who do this type of drive testing for a living, but most of them are looking only at commercial networks while we are concerned about coverage for the public-safety community. 

Winding Down

First, I want to direct your attention to a new video Q and A session worth watching that is posted on AllThingsFirstNet.com. This session is a discussion about the beginnings of FirstNet, how it has evolved, and the role FirstNet is playing during our first nationwide emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic. Hosted by Brent Lee, a founder of ATFN and past president of APCO, this is a conversation with Dick Mirgon, also a founder of ATFN and past president of APCO, and Chuck Dowd, a retired NYPD Deputy Chief. Both Dick and Chuck were deeply involved in the beginnings of FirstNet dating back to 2008. Later, Chuck served as a member of the FirstNet Authority board. 

Next is an important ruling from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released on April 8, 2020, after T-Mobile challenged the ruling on priority and pre-emptive capabilities which T-Mobile claimed were unduly restrictive. In this latest ruling, the GAO determined T-Mobile could not meet public-safety requirements as established in a Request for Qualification issued by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (an independent federal agency). (The agency referred to the network as AT&T FirstNet or equal, but that should have read “FirstNet (Built with AT&T) or Equal” since AT&T is the contractor for the public-safety network.)

For its part, T-Mobile was one of two networks that fought unsuccessfully to return the D-Block spectrum to the FCC for a second attempt to sell it at auction. During events leading up to the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, T-Mobile publicly stated that once the merger was complete, it would offer free 5G network access to first responders. It turns out Sprint is not willing to offer priority and pre-emption on 5G, which is the foundation of the FirstNet network. Without priority and pre-emption, public safety is not guaranteed access to the network when it is being heavily used by commercial users. FirstNet is a separate network with a separate core and FirstNet users do not compete with commercial users on Band 14. This is a good example that “free” does not necessarily mean something meets the needs of the public-safety community.

I find it amazing that commercial carriers who fought public safety for spectrum that is now part of the Public-Safety Nationwide Broadband Network (PSNBN) now want access to the community they claimed did not need the spectrum. Other commercial vendors that stood on the sidelines during the FirstNet RFP are also claiming they deserve a share of public-safety users and they should have access to Band 14 and the FirstNet core. AT&T’s successful bid for building FirstNet should have sent a clear message to all these networks that public safety wants and needs a single nationwide broadband network with a single point of contact when problems occur. Having more than a single organization providing services is not a good idea. Public safety is much too familiar with multi-vendor systems and finger-pointing when something does not work and public safety personnel cannot communicate. A single point of contact is the only option for a system dedicated to critical communications. 

Until next week…

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

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