Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Only, LMR Only, or Both

Those who read last week’s Advocate are expecting the third article of the series in which I outline current and future devices for public safety covering Land Mobile Radio (LMR), LMR multichannel, dual-mode LMR/FirstNet, and other devices available to the public safety community.

That was my stated intention but things change quickly when it comes to public safety communications and services. I did not expect this issue to surface again quite so soon. 

This debate concerns whether public safety communications require both land mobile radio and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) or, over time, will FirstNet be the focal point.

Smartphones and tablets operating on FirstNet can provide information to the field that has never been available before. At first, Nextel, a commercial cellular system, was the only vendor that offered Push-To-Talk (PTT). Nextel did not tranmit or receive on local public safety channels and could not be tracked using a scanner or some other type of device. However, it wasn’t until 2017 when the contract for FirstNet was awarded to AT&T, that smartphones and then tablets were made available and provided to personnel in the field.

Land mobile radios started out being simple to use since they covered only a few channels and a specific portion of the public safety spectrum. Now they support several forms of digital voice communications.

Today, LMR provides features and functions that are not yet available for public safety. LMR operates on networks built around the country, and off-network as well.

FirstNet Certified Broadband Devices

With the advent of cellular and then FirstNet (Built with AT&T), the public safety community gained access to far more types of communications and, in most cases, high-resolution screens. FirstNet started out being built for public safety and Band-14 was allocated specifically for public safety. 

A number of companies now offer PTT over FirstNet and some offer both PTT over FirstNet and integration with existing LMR systems. 

Choosing a Network or Networks

During the buildout of FirstNet (Built with AT&T) some people starting thinking about or even planning the time when they can could off their LMR system and use only FirstNet. Others believe the two networks should remain in service but be better integrated with each other. One group believes a single device will work across both FirstNet and LMR channels, which is how public safety wants to proceed.

Issues with Choosing a Network

Since LMR is on all its various frequencies and technologies, the FCC allowed public safety use of LMR channels. This was a major reason the public safety community came together and worked for many years with Congress, the FCC, and the Executive Branch of the US Government. We all know the most important feature, PTT, is missing, and it will continue to be missing for a while yet. However, there is no true nationwide LMR system so it seems impossible that there could ever be a single network not only due to technologies but also because of operational considerations.

Unfortunately, it took a number of disasters before the public and government truly became aware of public safety’s lack of interoperability when using LMR. This awareness encouraged a group of dedicated public safety professionals to begin formulating plans to gather approval, some spectrum, and some start-up funding from the feds to build the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (Built with AT&T) (NPSBN, now FirstNet). 

Making Correct Network Choices 

As I explained earlier, there are pros and cons for both networks and there are also strong reasons to continue with both networks and spend more time on network integration.

With the issues being faced by many agencies, it is difficult to make the right choice for today and into the future. Many agencies have aging LMR systems that need to be upgraded or replaced. This is a very expensive proposition as anyone who has replaced their LMR system know. The discussion about the current system and the desire to replace it is usually instigated by the agencies or perhaps their communications departments. Those who will make the decisions may go as far as talking to LMR vendors to learn what system the vendor recommends and how much it might cost. Meanwhile, the city is paying for access to FirstNet and spending money to keep their present LMR system running.

Who Makes the Decision?

Agencies, city or county counsels, and consortiums of agencies that want to combine their systems to obtain grants or loans from the Federal Government are often involved in the decision-making. Multiple departments and elected officials starting with chief executives of police, fire, EMS, and perhaps a communications service shop belonging to the city or contracted. These entities are sometimes involved in deciding the types and number of networks needed for various agencies. Often, the need to upgrade or build a new LMR network is brought up by an outside vendor, perhaps the one that installed the original system. Many agencies take the decision upon themselves when they believe their network does not serve their purposes as well as it used to and/or requires a great deal of maintenance dollars to keep it working.

Once the decision has been made, the next step is to find out what the cloth of the upgrades and/or replacements will be. This information can be obtained by one or more vendors, but the initial price should not be considered the final price. If the agency has its own funding and can afford the upgrades or replacement, it will probably choose to move ahead.

However, in areas where a large amount of money for communications would be considered a capital expense, approval from various elected officials would be required.

This is where it can get interesting. Usually, those in charge of the money it would take to both maintain their own LMR system and to use the new nationwide broadband service for public safety. A potential battle might begin here as agency leaders are pitted against elected town officials. In most cases, elected officials have never used a communications device other than a smartphone or tablet, and they do not understand the need for both land mobile radio and FirstNet.

At this point, two groups are trying to convince each other to either upgrade the existing Eleonora system or replace it with a new LMR system. Other officials use their cellular phones but rarely are conversant with LMR. Today, we can contact anyone in the world since the contract is with AT&T.

The Right Answer

As much as I would like to put the right answer in this article, there is no right answer for every agency in the United States. Some agencies will keep their LMR systems and hopefully integrate them with FirstNet and a PTT vendor that is FirstNet-Certified some will move to FirstNet and abandon their LMR systems, and some may switch their primary communications system FirstNet and keep some of their existing LMR installations and some mobile portable LMR equipment. If this is the case, it is imperative that the LMR equipment be run on a monthly basis to make sure everything is working properly.

When Will All Agencies Move to FirstNet?

Simplex tests verify FirstNet’s off-network system, when it is operational, will meet the needs of public safety when the network is not available or if there is a need for simplex groups even in areas where a network is available.

Final Thoughts

I believe the best way to provide the best possible communications for the public safety community is to make full use of FirstNet (Built with ATT) and continue to operate your existing LMR system as it is today, or as it could be expanded where needed, and /or keeping portions the LMR network for use in local areas.

If you ask one hundred or more first responders, I believe you will receive one of three answers: We don’t know what lies ahead in the way of technology changes; We don’t know how much an LMR system will be used if most of our communications are over FirstNet; AT&T is ready for FirstNet if it was to become an agency’s only method of wireless communications. No one knows the correct answer, if there is one. What we do know is that there will be changes in how networks are used over the coming years and enhancements and features galore, but betting on the coming years will get you in a lot of trouble.

When you ask about the timing for FirstNet to become the only public safety network you will receive three distinct answers: Both networks will remain in place and complement each other for many years to come; At some point, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will provide all of our communications needs, but we don’t know when; Why wait? FirstNet’s great coverage offers higher power for mobile units in public safety Band-14 and is ready to accommodate any agency that wants to become a FirstNet-only network provider.

No Simple Answer

After reading this article and talking to people within your jurisdiction or at a regional meeting, you will probably be as confused as the rest of us. If there is no one answer for all the agencies within the United States, that means there are numerous choices and decisions for numerous agencies serving the United States. Some agencies will make what they consider the right choice, some will realize they made a mistake perhaps when they moved to another system, and I believe some will take a wait-and-see attitude and convince their elected officials they need more time to ensure their agency has solid communications in their coverage area and anywhere they are called to provide support. The final point here is to make sure any agency, city, county, or larger areas will listen to more than one source of information so they can know their decision was based on reviewing all the options and selecting what best meet their needs today and with confidence their needs will be met well into the future.

As always, there is more to be considered. For example, are two different types of networks more secure than a single nationwide network? Can a single, nationwide network provide secure, nationwide communications?

If an agency chooses both FirstNet and LMR, will it be obligating itself to keeping its LMR system up-to-date with present-day technologies while planning for a future when network decisions will once again become important to each agency. 

Winding Down

You might have noticed at the top of this Advocate that we changed how the publication date is shown. Until this issue, the date was always Thursday of each month. However, during the last few months it has become difficult to meet the Thursday deadline every week. The new heading will indicate the week of publication rather than the day. This will give us some flexibility so we can continue to provide the Advocate and still take care other matters that are placing demands on our time.

The holidays are upon us and as each of you celebrate in your own way, we wish happy holidays to all, and best wishes to those who won’t be spending the holiday with their loved ones because they will be on duty making sure the rest of us stay safe.

This is the last Advocate for 2022.  We will be back in 2023 and will continue publishing the Advocate. We are always happy to receive comments whether they be good or bad or if we made a mistake and are not right all. That is what makes supportive publishing and doing our best to be as accurate as possible.

Happy holidays from the Public Safety Advocate team.

Andrew M. Seybold, Sr.
©2022, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Only, LMR Only, or Both"

  1. Andy, glad to see your vision is improving and you are delving into the reality of cost versus operational efficacy. Sorry to see that many are not yet ready for a true evaluation of the value of LMR versus LTE based FIRSTNET (Built with AT&T commercial assets). Certain advocates have taken the 3-monkey approach.

    The 3 most important operational aspects of a public safety communications system are coverage, capacity and reliability. The most difficult design component of the system is the location (and interconnection) of the base station site(s). For many rural or state public safety jurisdictions, the ‘Built with AT&T’ design will never be commercially viable because of the need to locate 3x to 5x number of sites (over LMR) to provide coverage equivalent to LMR (using VHF Band). Thus the use of deployable farmyard solutions when needed.

    There are nationwide LMR networks in use at the federal level. Most states have LMR systems for highway patrol and road maintenance operations. There has been little discussion of whether the base station sites could be leveraged to provide interoperability using conventional or trunked technology to provide nationwide ‘interoperability’ and local LMR coverage. This has worked as a statewide initiative (i.e.: STARCOMM21 in Illinois).

    While commercial (3GPP) based modulation improvements have leveraged operational capacity using expanded bandwidth, the complex nature of the operational product (commercial underpinnings) and inherent limitations of the handset in ERP and battery capacity give LMR a distinct advantage in terms of reliability. Also troubling is LTE system capacity during disaster based deployments. At issue is whether or not the new features available in the handset outweigh the traditional reliability of the channel or group based hand-held portable radio. Furthermore, cost comparisons favor LMR in traditional first-response operations.

    While I initially was a hopeful proponent of a ‘do-everything’ public safety communications alternative, as time goes on, the laws of physics have intervened with LTE in a manner similar to 6.25KHz analog modulation. FIRSTNET does provide a ‘better’ solution for public safety data networking requirements in many jurisdictions. Interesting to see that it appears you are slowly reaching a similar conclusion.

    Too bad FIRSTNET could not be incorporated (perhaps an AT&T investment) in one of the new satellite ventures. That would at least solve the ‘commercial’ siting conundrum. ‘LEO’ for LEO’s . . .

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