Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet NOT Operational?

According to an article in Radio Resources’ MissionCritical Communications, a court case brought by two Vermonters question why the government has failed to inform the court that FirstNet was operational as it stated it would in a previous agreement. Government lawyers in U.S. District Court argue that even though the Evolved Packet Core (EPC) is in place and operational, that is only one-half of the equation, the other half being the build-out of the Radio Access Network (RAN), which the federal attorneys are claiming to mean Band 14 spectrum only.

It might come as a surprise to the approximately 1,500 agencies that are up and running on FirstNet that federal lawyers assert that the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) won’t be deemed complete until Band 14 is built. If these two had only taken the time to understand wireless broadband or talk to those who do, they might have discovered that there is no wireless broadband network in the world that the service provider would tell you is “finished.” Networks are never finished. Today, all of the network operators are adding more wide-area and in-building coverage and are starting to roll out 5G small cells.

The idea that the federal government can declare the network fully operational only when Band 14 is built out does not consider the fact that today’s FirstNet is not only about Band 14 spectrum. In its RFP response, AT&T offered up and placed in service all its LTE spectrum and has stated over and over that 5G will be added to the mix as it is deployed. The criteria should not be based on Band 14, it should be about how and where the network is operational. There are still areas where FirstNet (Built by AT&T) is having to build out more sites, and areas where it makes sense to use Band 14, but there are other areas where it is possible that Band 14 will not be needed because the AT&T LTE spectrum is sufficient for use by both public safety and AT&T paying customers.

However, AT&T (FirstNet) has already deployed Band 14 spectrum in parts of the network and is moving forward with Band 14 builds in fifty states and Puerto Rico. Currently, there are 2,500 Band 14 sites in operation. Under the contract with FirstNet the Authority, FirstNet (Built by AT&T) must have Band 14 spectrum built out to a 20-percent level in both rural and non-rural areas by March 2019. AT&T has consistently beat the deadlines agreed to in its proposal to FirstNet the Authority and I am betting it will beat this deadline as well.

Today, FirstNet provides wide areas of broadband service with priority and pre-emption along with access to specialized applications over a secure network. One of the issues included in the lawsuit was that according to those filing the suit, FirstNet should have run a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) as required in the E-Government Act of 2002. The federal attorneys correctly noted that a PIA is only required if the data sent over the FirstNet network is to be stored by the federal government. In the case of FirstNet, storage will take place via AT&T and the agencies using the network and will not involve the federal government.

It is unfortunate that all along the route to the FirstNet network there have been major bumps and detours. In the beginning, these bumps could be attributed to FirstNet as it felt its way along, but then during the RFP process there was a lawsuit brought by one of the bidders claiming it had been unfairly ousted from contention. That dragged on and slowed FirstNet progress for six or so months, then the contract was signed with AT&T and the serious work to build the network began. Even then, one unsuccessful bidder and one network operator that did not even bid on the network both began a campaign to undermine the success of FirstNet. During the creation of FirstNet and then issuing the RFP, both of these organizations claimed they only wanted what was best for public safety. In reality, they were (and one still is) trying to keep FirstNet from reaching the goal of becoming a true nationwide public safety broadband network with full interoperability that will provide seamless communications, especially when multiple agencies are called upon to work together on larger incidents.

This suit started out with a demand that FirstNet provide information about the RFP and other activities with an attempt to invoke the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the court ruled in favor of FirstNet in that portion of the suit. It appears to me as if what’s left of the suit will also be ruled against but it is a shame the federal attorneys did not prepare themselves with the proper information about the network, the build-out, and the fact that like all other wireless broadband networks, it will never be “finished.”

FirstNet Build-Out

Some agencies are waiting for FirstNet coverage to improve in their area. Extensive testing is being done and some departments are trying out FirstNet with a few devices. Sometimes it is difficult to understand that coverage on another network an agency has been using for a few years appears to be better than FirstNet coverage. Some of this perceived difference may be due to the fact that today’s public safety broadband use on commercial networks is mostly limited to in-vehicle devices with external antennas. However, in some cases, lack of coverage is the case and FirstNet is building new sites and adding to existing AT&T sites as fast as it can. It is important to remember that had this network been a Band 14-only network, most of the United States would not have FirstNet coverage for three to five years and would instead be using only commercial LTE spectrum without priority in large areas where we now have FirstNet.

However, there does appear to be a discrepancy between actual coverage FirstNet has in some areas because sales personnel are not as well versed in their own coverage as they should be and sometimes make commitments that cannot be met at that moment but will be met further down the road. It is important for those charged with adding public safety agencies to do so with an understanding that there are areas in the United States where coverage sufficient for an agency is still in the future. If your livelihood is based on your success in adding new agencies and devices, you must still understand that misrepresentation, either intentional or by accident, can cause agencies to stay where they are. Over the years, public safety has learned that when it comes to wireless communications systems, many LMR vendors have misstated the coverage they can expect from a new system and once burned, public safety folks are some of the most cynical professionals around.

Wireless coverage is part science and part black-magic. For years we have been able to use computer programs to predict coverage from and to a site. However, once the site is built, actual coverage is oftentimes different than projected. This is one reason broadband and cellular network operators are constantly using drive tests to verify their coverage, find dead spots and congested areas, and provide design engineers with firsthand knowledge on what needs to be tweaked, where the coverage is not what was expected, and coverage that can change depending on seasons, leaves and pine needles, new buildings, and many other factors. One TV station recently determined that a new 35-story building within a block of its antenna will alter its coverage pattern and changes will have to be made to its system. All of us who have been involved in network planning and construction know that planned and projected coverage can vary greatly when the final equipment is installed.

House Passes H.R. 3994 Access Broadband Act

This act, which we have been supporting, “establishes a single point of contact office to streamline management of federal broadband resources across multiple agencies and create a simpler process for small businesses and local economic developers to access them including informational workshops for local businesses and economic developers.”

“Broadband Internet access is quickly becoming the heartbeat of opportunity for our local and national economies, helping students learn and grow, job candidates train and pursue new careers, doctors read medical scans and entrepreneurs start and grow small businesses,” Congressman Paul D. Tonko offered. “If enacted, this bill takes important steps forward to improve the efficiency, access and transparency of public investments in high-speed Internet connectivity. I am grateful to my colleagues in the House for advancing this commonsense legislation and urge the Senate to take up this common-sense pro-growth measure immediately.”

Winding Down

There is an increasing amount of good news about FirstNet, new users, new devices, and more applications. FirstNet (Built by AT&T) is a work in progress and there is more to be done. What I have seen over the course of the past year is the willingness of those responsible for design and coverage of the network to listen to requests and suggestions. That does not mean everything can be corrected or cured in a short period of time. And again, the thing many people seem to forget is that if a different vendor had stepped up and won the RFP with plans to build out a Band 14-only network, many more agencies would be waiting for longer periods of time before they could make use of this network.

FirstNet the Authority also needs to be thinking ahead as three key members will be terming out in August 2018 (McGinnis) and 2019 (Johnson, Swenson). Kevin McGinnis is a real EMS expert who has been involved with Pre-FirstNet and FirstNet activities for many years, and Chief (Ret) Johnson is vice-chairman of the FirstNet Board of Directors. Both Kevin and Chief Johnson have been staunch supporters of FirstNet and Public Safety. Sue Swenson, chairwoman, came out of the cellular industry and over the last few years I have watched as she became a real believer not only in FirstNet but also in the public safety community this network supports.

I hope the Department of Commerce and FirstNet the Authority will devote plenty of time and effort to finding qualified people to fill in this impending void. All will be missed and I hope their successors will be eager and capable of meeting the challenges ahead.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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