Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Integration

During the formation of FirstNet and then working with FirstNet to establish the goals of the network, it was always about fostering data and video services for public safety and to create a single, nationwide broadband network accessible to all public safety agencies including state and federal government agencies. After FirstNet became a reality and AT&T was awarded the contract to build and operate FirstNet for twenty-five years, forms of integration other than those included in the original FirstNet goals began being introduced and promoted.

The first deviation comes from those who have tested and approved more than thirty different vendors for providing Push-To-Talk (PTT) over public safety networks. As I have expressed before, my take is that this is too large a number of disparate vendors and applications. If they are all permitted access to the public safety broadband network, we will be reverting to the Land Mobile Radio (LMR) non-interoperability days. Even with 3GPP standards in place and even if all thirty meet the standards, we all know that moving forward, each vendor will tweak its PTT product to gain an advantage. Regardless of the standard, this will result in chaos. 

The second form of integration being discussed is from a broadband network operator that did not bid on the FirstNet RFP but feels it should now play a part so FirstNet will be interoperable across different broadband networks. This would mean sharing the FirstNet core, which is SOLELY for first responders and not part of a shared core as with the other network. Further, a second network would also bring about confusion in the pubic safety space and most likely create more interoperability issues than it would solve. I believe this because while 3GPP has standards and releases to update the standards, each network operator is still free to choose which upgrades to use within its network. Thus, it is very possible that over time there would develop yet another lack of interoperability.

The final type of integration is push-to-talk interoperability between LMR networks and FirstNet (Built with AT&T). I have been asking for this for some time and now there is a committee tasked with developing a solution. I deem this as vitally important to the public safety community because if we can achieve this level of integration, anytime an outside agency is called in to assist at an incident, which happens often, the responding units can use PTT over FirstNet and the local LMR system will be able to hear them and respond to them with what is needed where. During the incident itself, there will be coordinated communications across the entire scene. 

Of all the types of integration discussed above, I believe this last one is most important. I am pleased to be on the committee, under the umbrella of the Public Safety Technology Alliance (PSTA). We are charged with developing the best solution (one or more) for the integration of push-to-talk over FirstNet, which is already available, and LMR push-to-talk, which has been used by public safety since the 1930s. It turns out that there are a few ways in which to solve this problem.

ISSI and CSSI

ISSI and CSSI stand for Inter-RF Subsystem Interface (ISSI) and Console Sub-System Interface (CSSI). These two interfaces were born out of the need to be able to tie Project-25 (P-25) systems together. Further, they also work well for integrating P-25 LMR systems with FirstNet. However, ISSI does not solve the need for analog LMR or other forms of digital LMR systems and, depending on the vendor, ISSI can cost a department anywhere from $40K to more than $500K.  

ISSI has been around for a long time, is proven, and it passes unit numbers and unit locations between networks, which is extremely important in public safety communications, but it is not what I would consider to be user-friendly or easy to install and use. Even so, it is being offered by Motorola (which I believe now offers a cloud version to reduce upfront costs), and by companies such as ESChat, which is also approved to provide PTT services over FirstNet and other networks. Interestingly enough, the price of an ISSI interface from the other vendors costs much less than from Motorola. Add to that, most existing P-25 systems in existence do not have ISSI installed in their networks, and what we have is an expensive solution for a P-25-to-LMR interface that only works for P-25 systems.

CSSI is also designed for P-25 integration but it will also work with P-25-to-FirstNet integration. In the committee, we are looking for answers to the LMR/FirstNet integration issue that will work with analog systems as well as P-25. However, it appears that P-25 systems will require ISSI interfaces, and another technology can be used for analog FM LMR. The issue now is how to keep the ISSI price down or reduce it so even the smaller agencies that have elected to install P-25 systems can afford it.

DFSI

The next technology under consideration is the Digital Fixed Station Interface (DFSI). DFSI could be used but probably will need to be modified to meet the requirements of analog FM-to-FirstNet. This interface was designed primarily for console-to-P-25 systems, it permits voice and repeater or radio control, and can also be used for multiple radio connections. The committee is looking at this technology to see if it can be made suitable for LMR-to-FirstNet integration.

ROIP

The third technology discussed is more simplistic (at the moment) and is called Radio Over IP (ROIP). ROIP is already being used to replace T-1 phone lines with Internet Protocol (IP) circuits and to connect radios to each other either via the Internet or a private Internet Protocol network. Obviously, the Internet should never be used for public safety or this type of connection. Since there are more and more private IP-based networks within cities, counties, states, and even the federal government, I firmly believe private IP systems are mandatory for this network.

Today, ROIP is the least expensive solution available but there are some drawbacks that need to be fixed before it is considered a contender. The first is that it requires a donor radio. That is, if the ROIP link starts at the console, a FirstNet radio and ROIP box are required at the console. If the connections are to be made in the field, a number of command vehicles equipped with ROIP bridges such as the ones developed and sold by JPS Communications can be made available. The other downside of today’s version of ROIP is that it does not permit either unit number or location data to be passed across the network. Having said that, today there are more ROIP gateways installed and working than either ISSI or DFSI interfaces.

The reasons for this are that ROIP is easy to deploy, is cost effective, and can be set up at a console or dispatch facility or in the field. I have heard rumors that one vendor that has been selling ROIP gateways for some years now is working on or has developed a newer version of ROIP that will pass unit numbers between networks. I have been unable to verify this or if it will also pass location data. If it hits the market and is open-source, it could be the best way to integrate more analog FM systems with FirstNet. 

All of these technologies— ISSI, CSSI, ROIP, and DFSI—are based on Internet Protocol and will fit into a master plan to combine Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), LMR, and FirstNet into an all-IP back-end system. You may remember that I recently wrote a little about the EF Johnson P-25 Trunked/Simulcast network named “Atlas,” which is, in fact, all-IP based where network controllers are located at each site rather than a central location. The bottom line is the more systems that can be converted to IP-based back-ends, the easier it will be to build a cohesive public safety communications platform.

Another company, Mutualink, has and has deployed an integrated solution but it is a priority solution that is sold as a fully-integrated system and is not in the target price range. It is important to complete work on this task and enter solutions into the market as soon as possible. The true vision of FirstNet was and is to provide agencies with true nationwide interoperability and I believe the final piece is the integration of FirstNet and LMR push-to-talk. There is no doubt that as PTT continues to be expanded on FirstNet and is deployed on other public safety networks around the globe it will be more than simple PTT. It will include push-to-video, push-to-still picture, push-to-almost anything. This means information can be shared with a group even if multicast has not yet been implemented. The Department of Homeland Security also has a solution which is referred to as BSI which I do not have much information on but has been discussed but discarded from consideration because it is not available on a license free basis.

We all know PTT is the lifeline for first responders, on-network and off-network. It is widely used every day and it is proven. Our job now as I see it is to complete the integration path to include FirstNet to LMR and LMR to FirstNet PTT. I don’t believe it should be installed and left on all the time but others do since many senior officials are carrying only smartphones today. Leaving the integration path connected 24/7 may seem like a good idea, but with the number of agencies now on FirstNet and more coming onboard, the FirstNet network does not need all the day-to-day traffic from normal operations unless FirstNet becomes the prime dispatch network. I believe that might happen but not for a very long time. We still don’t have a solution for off-network PTT services over FirstNet and it looks like it will be a fairly long time until we do. LMR is here to stay—let’s integrate it with FirstNet and hope NG911 is funded this year.

Winding Down

I read Twitter every day and sometimes post. Today I was disturbed by a post from Admiral David Simpson (Ret.) who was in charge of the FCC Homeland Security and Public Safety Bureau under the last administration. Yes, he is a real expert in cybersecurity and has done a lot of things in that field. However, I think his comments on Twitter are counter-productive to the public safety community. His comments and my comments follow:

Admiral David Simpson (Ret.)
“It’s so important that as Public Safety shifts from Land Mobile to IP-based radios, they standup/beef up Cybersecurity programs for Public Safety Comms & their CAD, investigation, evidence and other connected sub-networks. Glad to see you are making this a priority at FirstNet!”

My Comments
I don’t have any problem with his cybersecurity statements as Simpson is a true expert in the field, but his first sentence is bound to cause some issues: “As Public Safety Shifts from Land Mobile to IP-based Radios…” [italics mine] First, we already have problems with elected officials wanting to stop funding public safety LMR systems as they point to FirstNet being online. Second, coming from someone of his stature, I am concerned that this statement will again cause my phone to ring off the hook (sorry for the old metaphor) with calls from public safety officials again asking for help convincing their elected officials that it is about FirstNet AND LMR, not about FirstNet replacing LMR anytime soon. It may happen, but only when those in charge of their agencies fully trust FirstNet with the lives of their professionals in the field.

FirstNet CEO

I was very pleased that during the tour of the scene at the Paradise California Fire (The Camp Fire) the FirstNet Authority acting CEO was there learning more about what happened and interacting with others there. It is great to finally see a FirstNet Authority CEO making sure he fully understands the issues being faced by those tasked with saving lives and property. Based on his proactive activities, he will be able to submit a list of priorities to fund to the FirstNet board. 

What I would really like to see now from the FirstNet Authority is for someone to spend time with many of the federal and state agencies trying to extend broadband services to rural America. The FirstNet network is building out in rural areas today but in order to provide coverage to all, it will need more partners and access to more funding. The federal agencies have many grants to award but there are too many agencies, too many different grants, and no money for after-build operation and maintenance. Further, many of these grants will only go to organizations that believe fiber to the home is the best way to go and do not give serious consideration of fiber to the community and wireless distribution of broadband. Someone at the FirstNet Authority should be making these agencies aware of the potential for working together and forming additional partnerships. 

I keep hoping Congress will step up and pass a bill creating a “Department of Broadband Deployment”. The bill that was in Congress last year fizzled out and now Congress is consumed with other matters. Nonetheless, public safety is vital and there are three lose ends: rural broadband, NG911, and the T-Band. All three of these should be raised to a high level of priority by someone in Congress who will drive them to completion. When FirstNet was formed, we had several Senators and Representatives who understood and convinced others these were indeed essential. Now we need the same type of push for these three items. 

Solid public safety communications are essential to those serving the public and to those whose lives and property are saved each day. I don’t think anyone in Congress could deny that it is imperative to be able to deliver citizens’ information that includes video, pictures, and texts to public safety answering points. If their state does not yet have NG911, perhaps it is even worth some votes when next running for office. The T-Band is not the goldmine Congress and the FCC thought it would be and public safety needs it now more than ever. Perhaps with the changes in the House there is new hope. Finally, if things stay the same with rural funding and the belief remains that only fiber to the home is worth funding, many U.S. citizens will be deprived of broadband access. 

Last by not least, as mentioned above, there is another broadband network operator that seems to feel entitled to barge into FirstNet and usurp some of its users. It is doing this in the name of interoperability but I think it is more like greed. Recently in Mission Critical Radio Resource Communications there was an article authored by a retired public safety person entitled, “Address LTE Interoperability Now, Not During an Incident”This article attempts to make the case that at least one other LTE network should be part of FirstNet. It is obvious from reading this that the article was prompted by others and I was preparing to write a rebuttal when another article was published. Dismantling the Vision of FirstNet Doesn’t” Benefit Public Safety. This article is from long-time FirstNet advocate Chief JJ Johnson (Ret.). Chief Johnson was involved in the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) from its inception, was an original board member of FirstNet, and became vice-chairman of the board before leaving. His article is the counterpoint to the first one and I have linked to both of them here so you can read them yourselves. If I were judging the two, I would give the award to Chief Johnson and penalize the other writer for misrepresenting the facts.

Those who claim we need two broadband networks don’t understand that public safety has been working for years with a single network in each area—its land mobile radio network. Adding FirstNet is adding a second network. Citizens on any broadband network are limited to one network even if it is down. Further, if you look at the FirstNet (Built with AT&T) track record during 2018, it brought service back in fire areas and hurricane areas faster than any other network. In one case in South Carolina, FirstNet was up and running but the LMR system failed. In the panhandle of Florida, severely damaged by its own hurricane, FirstNet was up and operational and Verzion was being called out for poor response. We have two networks for each and every agency that has joined FirstNet. If your agency wants two networks, join FirstNet. Let’s complete LMR-to-FirstNet PTT integration and move on to the next set of challenges. 

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Integration"

  1. Randy Kaminsky | February 1, 2019 at 12:36 am | Reply

    Andy, I remember making the statement time and time again that the FirstNet Authority should develop the MCPTT platform, based on a zone and talkgroup format as in P25, and then license it to any company that intends to use it over FirstNet. This solves the ‘interoperability’ issue and by licensing it’s use, provides a level of control that is sorely needed. The NTIA holds the license to band 14, so it can decide which communications formats can be used. If a developed CSSI was used, I believe that the user ID could be sent to the console. Analog radios using MDC1200 technology, could reasonable be filtered through an A to D converter to provide mobile to base, and base to mobile ID of units.

    I think some opposed this idea as it would make integration of MCPTT easier between carriers. However,a gateway would still be needed for these carriers to access the ‘core’ functions.

    Just as statewide P25 networks have regulations governing their, FirstNet could have rules governing ‘secondary’ carrier use and even charge a minimal fee for the interface.

    Just my two cents on the situation.

    Randy

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