The latest numbers are out for FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and as expected, they are really good. At the end of the first quarter of 2019, FirstNet reports its Band 14 buildout is at 53-percent of the total coverage called out in the contract. And the balance of AT&T’s LTE assets are being used daily by FirstNet customers. FirstNet also states more than 7,000 agencies representing 570,000 public safety personnel are onboard (a 33-percent growth over Q4 2018).
It seems every week in the news and on allthingsfirstnet.com there are announcements of more agencies joining FirstNet. These include Anchorage police Department, Alaska, the Navy and Marines, Brazos County, TX Sheriffs Department, Elmore County, Idaho, and more. This bodes well for FirstNet. These agencies are now recognizing the value of FirstNet when they are engaged in multi-agency incidents and rely on FirstNet as the common interoperability network during the event. This is precisely what public safety sought when it went to Congress to carve out this broadband spectrum.
Push-To-Talk—LMR, FirstNet, and Interoperability
The vision of FirstNet was to provide a nationwide network to which all first responders could connect. It started as data and video-centric, but after FirstNet was formed by the federal government, Push-To-Talk (PTT), text, and dial-up voice were added into the mix. This, of course, makes FirstNet a perfect fit to augment Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems. As I have mentioned before, now that push-to-talk over FirstNet is available from three vendors—Motorola (Kodiak), ESChat, and Orion Labs—public safety agencies can continue to use the flavor of PTT they already use or choose to implement another PTT flavor they deem best suited for their needs.
Promised is a level of interoperability between these PTT options when the 3GPP Mission Critical Push-To-Talk standard is finally adopted within the first responder community. While FirstNet PTT is a valuable addition to the network, I don’t believe it will replace LMR PTT anytime soon, or ever. Even so, if an incident requires support or assistance from agencies outside the primary jurisdiction, FirstNet PTT can provide a high level of interoperability between and among the various agencies including local, state, and federal entities that might be responding to the incident depending on its severity.
More and more agencies are finding ways to integrate their own LMR PTT systems with FirstNet on an as-needed basis. Agencies with P25 trunked systems have a few choices for how to accomplish this integration. If the P25 trunked system already includes an Inter-RF Subsystem Interface (ISSI), interfacing with other P25 trunked systems and FirstNet or other broadband PTT-capable networks is fairly straightforward. Not easy, but straightforward.
sThe issue becomes more complex when a P25 trunked system does not include ISSI, though several options are available. The first is to purchase ISSI from the same vendor that supplied the P25 trunked system but this can cost as much as many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Next is to work with a PTT vendor such as ESChat or one of its resellers, JPS for example, that can and has interfaced various vendors’ P25 systems using a much less expensive version of ISSI along with a Console System Interface (CSSI). Yet another option is to make use of Radio over IP (RoIP). Currently, this option does not permit the broadband unit’s ID or its location to be carried from one network to another. However, RoIP is by far the easiest and least expensive solution available today.
There are other choices for connecting FirstNet PTT and LMR PTT and some of these will be detailed in a report being prepared by the Public Safety Technology Alliance (PSTA). This report will examine a number of alternatives from ISSI/CSI to RoIP and several others that are available but will need some modifications to provide the desired cross-network connectivity. Indications are that we will soon have interoperable FirstNet PTT with more and simpler ways of connecting to existing LMR systems. As a result, agencies that have joined FirstNet will be able to truly communicate and share voice, data, and video with other agencies that are also FirstNet clients, which is the stated goal of all who worked so tirelessly to see FirstNet come to life.
Last week I pointed out that we still have a long way to go before FirstNet PTT might be ready to replace LMR PTT for uses such as dispatch and multi-agency coordination. However, the issue of off-network, or “simplex” communications remains unresolved for FirstNet and other broadband networks. Further, multicast has not been addressed nor has a timeline been established for a resolution. As readers know by now, I am pro-simplex on LMR channels now and for the foreseeable future. Simplex, which has been available on LMR radios for more than forty years, appears to be the best way to handle off-network communications. Meanwhile, there is no plan in the works for PTT over LTE (except for ProSe, which, as mentioned last week, I believe is a non-starter).
In the News Again—Throttling Back Broadband
We all remember the uproar last year when Verizon throttled broadband services for the Santa Clarita Fire Department during a major fire. In response, Verizon pledged it would not throttle public safety use of its broadband network in the future. Even so, the California Senate has proposed a bill (AB 1699) to prohibit throttling of fire departments and other public safety agencies during emergencies. Lobbyists are objecting!
It is not clear to me whether Verizon involved lobbyists in this battle or if the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the organization that represents all cellular operators, has decided to fight this bill on its own. Regardless of which group initiated this battle, it was the CTIA that notified California Lawmakers it was opposed to the bill as currently written. As far as I am concerned, the reasoning for fighting this bill is nonsensical.
According to news reports, the CTIA alleged the bill’s prohibition on throttling is too vague and that it should apply only when the U.S. President or California Governor declares an emergency—not when local governments declare emergencies. Network throttling should not be tolerated for any agency during an emergency of any type, not even if it occurs in a small city or county. Their emergencies can and have been as critical to them as larger-scale emergencies are to the nation or its states. Apparently the CTIA has even suggested it might sue California if the bill is passed in its current form, saying the bill would result in “serious unintended consequences, including needless litigation.” (Such as this?)
If Verizon had anything to do with this CTIA filing, it would be contradicting its public statements after the Santa Clarita incident when we read, “Verizon says it shouldn’t have throttled California firefighters during the wildland fire in August of 2018” (Washington Post, et al). For the record, this was followed by FirstNet (Built with AT&T) stating in September of 2018 that it “doesn’t throttle public safety agencies.” We all know Verizon wants to retain its public safety customers and has been quite vocal about what it can offer to compete with FirstNet. However, if it doesn’t want to throttle unless the Governor or the U.S. President declares an emergency, Verizon certainly doesn’t understand the public safety community and what it needs to save property and lives. There should never be a case where a public safety agency is throttled. Consider San Francisco, LA, San Diego, or even Sacramento using broadband during a major event such as the 4th of July, a marathon, or a parade. What would happen at the Rose Parade, for example, if the broadband vendor throttled the network being used by those charged with protecting the event, its participants, and crowds that gather? Fortunately, LA is using FirstNet so there is no danger of that. What if a network other than FirstNet was being used and throttling did occur because an emergency had not been declared by the President or the Governor and someone lost their life? Who would be to blame?
May will be a busy month for us. The evening of the 9th we will host a public safety cocktail party and BBQ (remember to RSVP to email@example.com if you would like to join us). The following week, I will be in Dayton at the Ham Radio Convention where I will be able to socialize with many first responders and public safety communications types since it was ham radio that catapulted most of us into this business. I received my first ham radio license when I was 14. By the time I was 16, I was eligible to join the local volunteer fire department as a junior fireman, which meant I would be sent to PA fire school and qualify to assist outdoors at fires, but not inside a burning building.
When I went to the fire station to pick up an application, the chief was there, we chatted, and he walked me back to my car. Once there, he saw my three mobile antennas and asked about them. I explained that two of them were for ham radio and one was to monitor fire and police in town. He turned to me, took my application, signed it, and said, “Okay, you are now my communications officer.”
That was many, many years ago, and I went on to become the communications head for the Delaware County Civil Defense and a few years later, communications advisor for the Chester County Fire Chiefs. From that point on, as I moved into the commercial aspects of Land Mobile Radio, I was thankful for my start as a ham, which has led to a wonderful career.
We are in dire straights when it comes to attracting new blood into the public safety communications field. Many who grew up in the industry have retired or passed away, many of the county and city communications departments have been incorporated into the IT shops, and we are losing a lot of expertise and information that has not been passed on to a new generation. The Internet and other advances have contributed to this situation, and ham radio is not attracting as many young people as it once did through organizations such as ham radio clubs and the Radio Club of America, which are doing everything they can to interest youngsters in this hobby that so often turns into a profession.
I often tell people that when I am in my office, my wife/editor/business partner (we met over ham radio) never knows if I am working on business assignments or on my hobby. In reality, they are the same. I have built and installed radio repeaters and systems on the East Coast, in the Mid-West, and in California. I have carried test equipment into remote sites to troubleshoot problems, and I have learned from a host of others—real experts who have been there and done that well before me.
If the marriage of NG911, LMR, and FirstNet is to succeed, it must be led by people with a depth of knowledge that will ensure interfaces are built and work, and troubleshooting is effective. And as more and more interference is generated by anyone who uses wireless for anything, we need people who know how to identify problems and fix them. If we do not have sufficiently qualified people, all of today’s wonderful systems developed over time with dedicated effort, will degrade to the point that they will no longer be capable of serving those who need them. FirstNet is of vital importance to public safety, but so are NG911 and LMR. So are the people who know how to keep it all up and running!
Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.