Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Growth, Another MCPTT Option, FirstNet 10-Year Anniversary Soon, 4.9 GHz

This week we will look at the numbers as FirstNet (Built with AT&T) continues to add more agencies and users and we will discuss its plans to support another Push-To-Talk (PTT) application. We will then consider the possibility that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will issue a notice of proposed rulemaking for the 4.9-GHz band and reflect on public safety’s stance on this spectrum. 

FirstNet Growth

Congratulations to FirstNet (Built with AT&T). The latest numbers have been released and they show that the network now supports more than 17,000 agencies and more than 2.5 million users. 

Growth in the number of agencies and users continues as more agencies sign up to share in nationwide interoperability. As AT&T continues to add more Band 14 coverage and expand the FirstNet footprint, agencies are finding that, in many cases, FirstNet coverage is superior to coverage from other broadband providers. Since Band 14 (the public-safety spectrum) allows use of higher-power devices, Band 14 coverage is being extended and data speeds are being increased. 

Another MCPTT Application Coming to FirstNet (Built with AT&T)

As mentioned a few weeks ago, there are eight FirstNet-certified PTT vendors providing a variety of flavors of push-to-talk across the FirstNet network. Many of them bridge to existing Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems using Inter-RF Subsystem Interface (ISSI), Distributed File System (DFS), Computer Subsystem Interpretation (CSSI), and Radio over IP (RoIP). While Motorola’s Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT) is based on 3GPP standards, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) does not refer to this PTT as “MCPTT” because many within the public-safety community do not agree with 3GPP’s definition of “mission-critical” and believe true mission-critical is failsafe starting with the network itself. I prefer “public-safety grade communications,” a term used by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC). 

Motorola’s MCPTT is part of its overall critical-communications platform that uses a cloud-based back-end that we are told will enable integration with its existing enhanced PTT (Kodiak) and provide “seamless” integration with today’s land mobile radio systems. 

According to Urgent Communications, Motorola’s MCPTT does not include ProSe, the 3GPP standard for off-network communications that was basically dead-on-arrival since two people can yell farther than ProSe can talk between two LTE devices. Off-network communications are critical to first responders.

FirstNet’s first iteration of “FirstNet PTT,” released more than a year ago, still does not support Apple iOS devices and so far, only radio over IP can bridge FirstNet PTT to an existing land mobile radio system. The problem with RoIP is that unit ID and location information, also important to first responders, are not supported across an RoIP bridge today.

However, it might be enough that AT&T and Motorola have worked together toward this soon-to-be-available solution to induce public-safety agencies using Motorola LMR systems that are not yet using FirstNet (Built with AT&T) to move to FirstNet.

I have been critical of MCPTT from the beginning for a number of reasons. First, it was developed by the 3GPP as an application standard and, as far as I know, this is the first time the 3GPP has approved an application. Its customary work includes development of network standards for LTE and now 5G. Another reason I am skeptical is that MCPTT-compliant applications must be hosted within the network. Positioning the PTT server within the network speeds up both the attack time and volley time. (Attack time is the time it takes from when users push the PTT button until they can begin to speak; volley time is the time it takes for the receiving party to be able to answer after the talker releases the PTT button.) So far though, people using today’s FirstNet-certified PTT applications on the network have not expressed any concerns with the attack or volley times.

But I still have a question: Will FirstNet users on other PTT systems, many of which are interconnected to their existing LMR networks, switch to a 3GPP standard PTT application or will they stay with their current PTT vendor?

After conversations with public-safety professionals, I suspect most will stay with their existing PTT vendor. The principal reason given by those in the field is that their current PTT works well and, in many cases, when bridged to their LMR network, it provides full unit ID and location information between the two networks.

Those touting the advantages of 3GPP PTT appear to be late to the push-to-talk party. I don’t think anyone really knows how many PTT users there are on FirstNet or which flavor of PTT they are using, but my impression is that most users have already chosen Motorola’s PTT (Kodiak) or one of the three ESChat-certified PTT applications (ESChat, JPS VIA, Tango Tango).

Missing is the ability to put together a common nationwide PTT system that will provide PTT among agencies and users. Instead, we have several different PTT applications that cannot communicate with each other. Again, it is not that they cannot be tweaked to be able to talk to each other, it is because some vendors don’t want PTT interoperability—even if it is for the betterment of public-safety push-to-talk communications.

From what I can tell, the Pro-MCPTT crowd consists mostly of vendors that hope the public-safety community will abandon what they are using today and flock to 3GPP-standard PTT products once they support both Android and iOS and they can be integrated into existing LMR systems with full encryption and cross-platform groups support. Time will tell, but I believe this standard has arrived too late for public-safety professionals to switch to it simply because it is a “standard.” 

That leaves us with the dilemma of how to provide a truly nationwide, common PTT platform for FirstNet and other broadband users who need PTT bridged to their own LMR systems. 

FirstNet has been up and running since early 2017 and PTT-certified applications have been being used on the network almost as long; they have a huge head start over applications that came years later. Some think MCPTT will finally meet all the needs of the public-safety community. All we have to do is wait. 

One final point. Some PTT applications, actually messaging apps, are being offered at no cost. These are not secure, they are susceptible to being accessed by others, and they are not to be used on FirstNet. It is imperative that you verify any application you want to use on the FirstNet network, including your PTT application, has been fully certified by FirstNet (Built with AT&T). 

Ten Years Ago

February 22, 2022, will be the ten-year anniversary of the signing of the law that, among other things, created FirstNet and funded it with $7Billion from future FCC spectrum auctions—not from the Federal Treasury. This law also requires public safety to give back the T-Band spectrum it has been using in eleven metro markets. T-Band spectrum had been carved out of spectrum in cities where no TV stations were operating in 470-512 MHz TV spectrum. 

Prior to that, in July and August of 2021, many of us were in DC still talking to Members of Congress, their staff members, the then-Vice-President’s office and staff, and the FCC because several attempts at a standalone bill to create the FirstNet broadband network had failed multiple times. 

None of us were ready to give up even though we were told many times that we would not prevail. We all stayed the course and we finally met our goal when FirstNet was signed into law. 

We did not welcome the portion of the law that required us to give back the T-Band and, as many of you know, it took almost to the deadline for the FCC to start the auction process to convince Congress to repeal the T-Band giveback but, again, we prevailed. Many people and organizations contributed to the effort to repeal the T-Band. As with FirstNet, they were not deterred by the lack of action. They kept up the pressure until what seemed like the last minute and, finally, as part of another bill, the T-Band giveback was called off and agencies in the eleven metro areas were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. 

4.9 GHz

Last year’s FCC Commissioners voted 3-2 to repurpose 4.9-GHz spectrum and assigned it to each state, which could then appoint a “Band Manager” and lease the spectrum to the highest bidder for whatever use they wanted. 

The public-safety community came together once again and the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) was reincarnated as the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA). We filed a number of comments with the FCC and asked for a stay of the rulemaking that would strip us of the 4.9-GHz spectrum. 

The current FCC, with one commissioner short of the five that are to hold office, voted 3-1 to grant our stay. At some point we expect issuance of a new Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to determine the highest and best use of this 50 MHz of spectrum. 

When first allocated to public safety, this spectrum was intended to be used for local-area Wi-Fi-type communications including at the scene of incidents. Technology has now advanced to include the next generation of wider-area broadband. Since the inception of FirstNet, the public-safety community has discovered how important broadband capabilities are to all agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. Therefore, we are hopeful when this NPRM is published we will have an opportunity to make our case for re-assigning this spectrum to the public-safety community and perhaps this time obtaining a nationwide license for its use for 5G broadband services, some inbuilding 5G, or even Wi-Fi 6 co-existence.

I am still hopeful that the new FCC will appoint a public safety or public safety and critical communications advisory council to confer with on issues that will affect public-safety and critical-communications users.

Winding Down

We have come to the end of the seventh month of 2021 and, so far, it has been a rough year for those who serve as public-safety professionals, medical staff, and those who volunteer their time and efforts to assist others in need. 

Currently, too many wildfires are burning in the West due to the lack of rain and intense heat while both the Midwest and East have experienced an over-abundance of storms that have caused major damage and flooding. And we still have most of the hurricane season ahead of us. 

If we did not have the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network FirstNet (Built with AT&T) up and running across the nation, our first responders would still be on the front lines dealing with all this but they would not have the capabilities FirstNet brings to them in the way of interoperability and the ability to share information between federal, state, and local agencies. 

I have to believe these capabilities are making a big difference in how incidents are coordinated and personnel and equipment are deployed. It was to this end that so many public-safety professionals and many others worked so diligently to make FirstNet a reality and there is still work to be done to be able to communicate more effectively over FirstNet. I think the vison we shared for so many years before FirstNet became real was right on-the-money. Our private partner, AT&T, has made our vison a reality and augmented it in ways we never envisioned. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Until next week… 

Andrew M. Seybold
©Andrew Seybold, Inc.


1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Growth, Another MCPTT Option, FirstNet 10-Year Anniversary Soon, 4.9 GHz"

  1. Brent Finster | July 29, 2021 at 12:30 pm | Reply

    Andy –
    A question and a correction. First the correction, in your section about Ten Years Ago, the dates in the second paragraph should be July and August of 2011 not 2021.

    In the section regarding MCPTT apps, you state “These are not secure, they are susceptible to being accessed by others, and they are not to be used on FirstNet.” I get the point that some messaging apps are not certified by FirstNet however, I don’t understand your point about them not to be used on FirstNet. I see FN certification as a recommendation but I have not understood that if an app has not been certified that it “should not be used on FirstNet”. That seems a stretch to me. I’m sure that there are hundreds of non-FirstNet certified apps being used on FirstNet devices by public safety personnel. Please explain or clarify.

    Thanks as always for your column.

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