Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Progress and Coverage Issues

It appears from information provided by FirstNet that more than 1,000 public safety agencies have signed on to the network and are commencing to put it to use. However, some agencies are waiting because they are being told they will get a better deal and service by staying with Verizon. Other agencies have told us they are not convinced FirstNet coverage as it stands today is sufficient for their needs and are waiting to see how FirstNet fills in their coverage area.

On the plus side for FirstNet, many departments that have run comparison coverage tests between Verizon and FirstNet have been pleasantly surprised at how good FirstNet coverage already is in their area. Other agencies are in discussion with FirstNet (Built by AT&T) to expedite extended coverage plans. New devices are being approved for use on FirstNet all the time. The latest is the Sierra Wireless MG-90 vehicular modem. While Sierra is not a client of mine, it has provided me with an MG-90 that is installed in my car along with my three JVCKenwood VHF, UHF, and 700/800 radios. This has become a valuable tool for me as I can now check both Verizon and FirstNet coverage and store the results for future use. I can also compare the coverage to LMR systems in an area.

There are now a number of different vehicular modems available from Sierra Wireless, Cradlepoint, and others. While some departments are not yet satisfied with FirstNet’s coverage in their area, they can and should still take part in FirstNet even if in a limited way. Having a modem with external antennas mounted in a vehicle provides FirstNet coverage over a wider area than testing coverage with a smartphone inside a vehicle or with a laptop and LTE dongle without an external antenna. The modems provide more than simply access to FirstNet, another network, or a combination of networks, they also provide a Wi-Fi bubble around the vehicle. This means even if a handheld device does not have a good FirstNet signal, the vehicle may, and handheld devices within the Wi-Fi bubble can use the vehicle’s modem as a Wi-Fi-to-FirstNet repeater.

Many public safety agencies are already familiar with this type of in-vehicle repeater since their LMR system may have LMR-to-LMR repeaters installed in the vehicles to increase the range of the LMR handheld. For example, every California Highway Patrol car includes a 700-MHz low-power radio that is integrated into its low-band, much higher power mobile. This gives Highway Patrol officers the same range back to dispatch when they are out of their vehicle as when they are in the driver’s seat using the mobile microphone.

When I was a contractor for FirstNet I was asked to work with a group of people who were designing a first blush Band 14 system that could be built for $7 billion. This system was to be a proof-of-concept network not designed to cover the entire nation but to cover several major metros areas, some mid-size cities, and a state or two. It would provide to-the-street coverage to be used, we hoped, to determine capacity and could be used by a vendor that bid on the entire network. As it turned out, the idea was not met with much enthusiasm within FirstNet, and then AT&T’s bid solved many of the capacity and priority issues by offering up all of AT&T’s existing LTE spectrum plus Band 14.

The idea of moving forward with FirstNet to be able to gain access to the level of encryption, applications, and data access to multiple databases, as well as the interoperability aspects of joining the network are worth, I believe, moving forward even if the coverage today is lacking in some places. If you recall, when this was supposed to be a Band 14-only network, we expected the build-out to take at least five years. FirstNet (AT&T) has shortened that time by four years or more for most service areas and is moving forward as quickly as possible to fill in the gaps.

While FirstNet may not be recommending a dual network approach (remembering that Verizon cannot use Band 14 and has no access to the FirstNet core) some of the vehicular modems are capable of running on two or even more LTE networks. It is possible to sign up with FirstNet and then enter into a by-the-megabyte contract with a second network provider. In this way, the department becomes part of FirstNet but has back-up or fallback to another network if FirstNet lacks coverage where the other network covers. This is not an ideal solution of course, but it does provide access to FirstNet and all of its benefits.

As I listen to what is going on with coverage I collect some interesting facts. In one case, an agency found they had FirstNet coverage in what is an LMR dead area, and using PTT over FirstNet, they were able to communicate back to their dispatch center. I have also heard that in some instances when a vehicle runs out of LMR range it is still in FirstNet coverage. There is a real advantage to having both LMR and FirstNet as they tend to be back-up networks for each other.

There are other areas of the United States where there is neither FirstNet nor LMR coverage, yet public safety must venture into these areas and become out of touch. There are ways to alleviate that issue as well.  There are systems today with which you can integrate your LMR and FirstNet radios with a satellite system mounted on the roof of the vehicle and when you lose terrestrial access to the network or networks, you are automatically switched over to the satellite for backhaul.

Winding Down

FirstNet is about more than a single network. It is about providing communications for public safety. This can be via the FirstNet terrestrial network, Wi-Fi connections back to FirstNet, satellite backhaul for difficult to cover areas, or during emergencies when FirstNet provides cows and/or drones to fill in dead areas. FirstNet is not simply a network, it is a communications system that, in conjunction with LMR, gives public safety more access to more modes of communications while at the same time adding yet another level of redundancy. LMR and FirstNet are a set of communications tools and as we move forward they will become more complementary to each other.

There are ways to learn the benefits of FirstNet even if, at the moment, FirstNet does not appear to provide sufficient coverage in a given area. While AT&T is extending the network as quickly as is possible, in the meantime, workarounds are available.

Andrew M Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Progress and Coverage Issues"

  1. Coverage is obviously important, but network capacity is critical as well. In my area Verizon and AT&T/FirstNet have pretty similar coverage profiles. However, we are seeing significant network congestion on some Verizon bands resulting in very slow speeds on public safety vehicles during the daytime. AT&T has been aggressive adding spectrum on the local towers so moving devices over to FirstNet has dramatically improved performance and solved a number of issues I was having.

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