The first item of interest for FirstNet and its rural customers should be the progress on H.R. 3994. If passed by Congress and signed into law, this bill will provide a new government oversight organization that will hopefully establish a pool of all existing grants and low-cost broadband loans being offered by government agencies including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA, Broadband USA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and others. A few weeks ago I indicated that FirstNet should be an active participant in this new agency or whatever they decide to call it. I suggested that this agency should be structured like the FirstNet Authority, which is an Independent entity with its own board of directors and can work on public/private partnerships. This has worked well for FirstNet and has enabled it to move forward somewhat faster than a typical government entity.
Further, I think this organization should only hire people experienced in broadband deployments (fiber, microwave, and various forms of wireless) and who understand the economics of engineering and building out successful broadband systems. They should also understand that a grant to simply build a network without any follow-on to keep it running (maintenance, insurance, leases, power, etc.) is a waste of time. While AT&T is required to build out FirstNet in rural areas, it is also charged with maintaining, upgrading, and even expanding it over the course of the next 25 years.
H.R. 3994 was moved out of the sub-committee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to the full committee on June 13, 2018. On July 12, 2018, which is lightening fast for committee action, it was ordered by a voice vote of the full committee to be reported. This means it will now go the entire House for a vote. If it is passed and sent to the Senate, it too, will hopefully pass the bill in record time. Then instead of having various agencies with their different grants, deadlines, and guidelines, and some agencies favoring fiber-only solutions while some understand the last mile is best served by wireless, everyone will be under one roof run by people who live and breathe broadband. The organization will understand that the FirstNet requirement for rural broadband build-out provides many opportunities for additional broadband sites and services to be coordinated, combined, or built to interface with FirstNet (Built by AT&T).
Last week I wrote about my idea for LMR-to-LTE and LTE-to-LMR PTT interoperability that can be built inexpensively into a mobile device. I have received a lot of interest in this so I have asked a technician who works for us in Southern Calif. who seems to be able to keep up with most engineers to work on a prototype board for a proof of concept. I also contacted Josh Lober at ESChat and he agreed to assist in the project as well. As we were discussing this device I realized I had not been very clear about one of the most important features of this in-vehicle LMR-to-LTE and LTE-to-LMR PTT repeater. We will be taking audio from the LMR radio after it has been processed, either at the speaker connections or, if the radio has discriminator audio available with a connector, we will take it from there.
As a result, the flavor the radio does not matter. Analog FM is fine, P25 is fine, DMR is fine. This device will simply pick off voice and PTT signals so they can be used for any LMR system. The shortcomings are that it only provides a single LMR-to-LTE and LTE-to-LMR bridge, but that is a lot more than we have in most cases today. Further, it will not pass location and user IDs since it is simply an audio connection. However, since it will be connected to a known LMR channel and a known LTE Group and provides PTT in both directions during an incident and it will be very inexpensive to accomplish this, I think it is worth pursuing. I am hopeful this type of easy-to-use, easy-to-set up cross LMR/LTE repeater will enable departments to become more conversant with PTT over FirstNet and help increase the number of agencies that sign onto FirstNet.
The APCO Annual Conference will be held in Las Vegas from August 5-8 at the Sands Convention Center. Activities actually start on Saturday August 5 with registration being open, APCO committee meetings in the afternoon, and a tour of the Henderson Public-Safety Answering Point (PSAP). Sunday there will be a tour of the Las Vegas PSAP, and later in the day a trip to the Las Vegas Fire PSAP as well as many professional development sessions. The exhibit hall opens on Monday and there are many sessions for attendees during the week.
There appear to be a number of worthwhile sessions and I am looking forward to attending APCO, taking in some sessions, and walking the exhibit hall to see what stands out as new and exciting. I am hoping to see more LMR/LTE cross-over devices, more public safety-grade tablets (which I think will be must-have devices for incident commanders), and of course, more LTE broadband devices. I will also be looking to see if this show has added any software development companies as exhibitors to show their latest public safety-specific applications, and I always walk the edges of the exhibits to see what new, small companies and organizations have joined the exhibits. Oftentimes it is possible to find a young company that has a truly great idea that only needs to be able to show it to the public safety community.
The other side of this event is being able to meet with those we have known for years but only see at conferences, and those we meet for the first time. I will also be spending time talking with people within the public safety community to better understand their concerns regarding broadband and FirstNet. I hope to see many of our readers there as well as a widening circle of friends.
More Spectrum for Rural Broadband
Chair of the House Communications Sub-Committee Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), according to a report in Daily Tower News, is looking to consolidate several rural broadband proposals and held a hearing to re-examine them. It was reported that Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and the 2.5-GHz band were mentioned in the hearing as was satellite coverage but I did not see any indication that the Chair of this committee even knows FirstNet exists or that it has 20 MHz of Band 14 spectrum that can be deployed in rural areas to be used not only by the public safety community but by citizens and others on a secondary basis.
Add to this that this is the only cellular band that permits higher-power transmitters and it seems to me that members of FirstNet should have been part of the hearing and certainly should work with Chair Blackburn going forward and make these capabilities known. This is yet another instance of a greater need to easily identify all the resources that could be used to help provide broadband to rural areas.
FirstNet (Built by AT&T) and FirstNet the Authority have many good things working in the background to further enhance the FirstNet experience. Meanwhile, more agencies are signing up, coverage holes are being filled in, and more software developers are stepping up to provide FirstNet-specific software. These are good signs and should encourage more agencies to sign up the entire agency or at least the leadership for hands-on experience.
It is constantly disappointing to me that those within the federal government who claim to be working toward extending broadband services into rural areas and to poverty-level individuals and families are not aware of all the resources that might be useful in their efforts—especially FirstNet. A number of both House and Senate representatives who were voted into office after FirstNet was established and many in Congress at the time FirstNet was established simply do not know or do not understand what FirstNet brings to the party. The FCC in particular should be aware of all FirstNet activity, especially since the Homeland Security Bureau deals with public safety on a daily basis. However, it appears the majority of the commissioners either are not aware of FirstNet or are still upset that this Independent Authority was housed under NTIA and not the FCC. For whatever reason, it appears the FirstNet build-out of rural America does not show up on the FCC’s radar or other agencies’ radar either.
FirstNet has proven that a large private/public partnership pays off. The goal of a nationwide broadband network could not have been given life had it not been for this partnership. The DC folks, as well as a number of those elected to positions in the states, need to better understand FirstNet and that more private/public partnerships could mean faster, less expensive rural broadband services sooner rather than later.
Andrew M. Seybold
©2018, Andrew Seybold, Inc.