FirstNet (Built with AT&T) just closed out its best quarter for new users. Numbers at the end of September 2021 show 18,500 agencies and 2.8 million individual users are now on the FirstNet network. Increased user numbers are a result of more agencies finding that the FirstNet network provides the nationwide public-safety interoperability platform that is needed for multiple agencies to share communications during incidents.
In-Vehicle FirstNet and LMR
One question I am asked almost every month concerns how communications systems might or should be configured in vehicles. There are many answers and some depend on the type of vehicle and what it will be used for during incidents. I have been asked if it would be possible to add Push-To-Talk (PTT) to a router in the vehicle. Well, if there is a router in a vehicle, it makes sense that if PTT could be added to the router along with an amplified speaker and microphone, the router could certainly provide for FirstNet push-to-talk inside the vehicle.
Obviously, the impediment to this is that routers support neither Android nor iOS operating systems and current PTT solutions have to run on one or both of these.
However, today there are a number of ways to use a FirstNet-approved PTT application over a router. The first and most straightforward way is to use a Wi-Fi bubble. In addition to connecting to a broadband network, most routers provide a Wi-Fi bubble around the vehicle. Any smartphone that is connected via Wi-Fi to the vehicle’s router can, in fact, communicate using any of the various flavors of FirstNet-approved PTT.
Then there are companies such as GPSLockbox that provide adapters to enable smartphones and tablets to be used in a vehicle. The smartphone or tablet mounts into a device designed specifically for that model of phone or tablet. Once the phone/tablet is cradled in the device, it can provide an amplified speaker, a standard push-to-talk microphone, connectivity to the vehicle’s battery system for charging, and perhaps even the ability to add FirstNet (Built with AT&T) High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) to increase the range of the handheld device on Band 14.
Those familiar with Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems might recall that Motorola offers a Convertacom in-vehicle device. A handheld radio could be inserted into the Convertacom and be automatically connected with an outside antenna (or antenna and amplifier), an amplified speaker, and a microphone. GE Mobile Radio offered a similar device for its PE series of handheld radios.
There is also Cinetcomm, a company located in Nevada, that builds a number of vehicular devices including what I would describe as a “smart control head” that can be married to both a router and an existing LMR radio, and the Cinetcomm servers can connect to some FirstNet-approved PTT applications to provide cross-platform PTT interoperability. Further, if the vehicle is out of LMR range, the control head routes LMR over LTE and if needed for out-of-area coverage, it also offers a mobile satellite system that can provide backhaul for both LMR and LTE and re-connect them to their respective networks.
As I continued looking at various options for in-vehicle FirstNet PTT, I reached out to ESChat and discovered it offers a number of Software Developers Kits (SDKs) including Client SDKs for Android, iOS, and other embedded architectures. ESChat states, “We have an SDK that router vendors could use to implement ESChat on their routers. Our Linux SDK includes the same features as our ESChat client, except for the user interface. Thus, adding a Remote Speaker and Microphone (RSM) with a channel and volume knob would complete the solution. This version of the SDK is available for x86 or ARM architectures, and it is free to strategic vendors that are interested in building ESChat into their platform.” Below is a diagram of the SDK architecture.
It appears from this diagram that any router vendor that was inclined to add PTT functionality to an in-vehicle router could do so fairly easily. I am hopeful that one or more router company will take up this challenge. It should not be difficult to develop an interface for a remote amplified speaker with volume control and a push-to-talk microphone to make this happen.
I think it would also be interesting to see if combination LMR/FirstNet/broadband radios such as the L3Harris XL–200M, which I believe today supports only the L3Harris BeOn version of PTT, could also use the ESChat SDK to add ESChat PTT to the radio.
There are a number of reasons for pursuing options to enable communications from within a vehicle using FirstNet and push-to-talk. Most public-safety vehicles already have one or more land mobile radio installed in them. However, some non-first-responder public-safety personnel who perform non-incident-related functions, such as fire inspectors, may no longer need an LMR radio in their vehicle if they have access to FirstNet PTT.
Adding FirstNet/broadband PTT in a vehicle that is already equipped with LMR communications provides yet another level of redundancy to the vehicle’s communications capabilities. This is especially important when the vehicle is called to respond outside its normal jurisdiction and, therefore, outside its LMR network’s coverage. With both FirstNet broadband PTT and LMR PTT, those in the vehicle would be able to communicate while en route and on the scene of a multi-agency event.
Adding FirstNet MegaRange™/HPUE
The next logical move after adding push-to-talk FirstNet capabilities to a vehicle would be to add Band 14 High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) to the router. Here, there are two choices. The first is the Assured Wireless system that is designed to use an external antenna and interface with FirstNet-approved routers. The second is to install an AirgainConnect HPUE system in which the Assured Wireless module has been embedded into the antenna that mounts on the roof of the vehicle. Both of these have been proven to increase coverage for Band 14 by 50-80%. Either device using the FirstNet MegaRange service will provide additional coverage and higher data rates from the vehicle to the cell site.
Tablets and Laptops
Many of today’s public-safety vehicles have a tablet or a laptop installed in them. In most cases, the tablet/laptop can be removed and used by the Incident Commander to send and receive additional information including situational awareness and location of equipment, personnel, fire hydrants, and other devices. If the tablet/laptop is connected to a router when it is mounted in the vehicle, and it is within the Wi-Fi bubble around the vehicle when it leaves, it can continue to communicate via the router. Then of course, if the router includes MegaRange Band-14 capabilities, coverage will be increased as will upload data speeds.
As push-to-talk becomes more predominant on FirstNet, and PTT systems become more interoperable between FirstNet/broadband and LMR, vendors are looking for new ways and new devices to provide a broader range of communications to the public-safety community.
Public-Safety Resiliency and Redundancy
The above ways to add Push-To-Talk (PTT) to a router in a vehicle are only a sampling of a few ideas that are being explored. I am certain that vendors have also been working on more and different ways to provide additional resiliency and redundancy to public-safety systems through use of both FirstNet and land mobile radio. The more systems are able to support interoperability between FirstNet and LMR, the more redundant public-safety communications will become. The resiliency and redundancy of LMR systems, and now FirstNet, are constantly being reinforced. Having more redundant forms of communications, especially push-to-talk, results in yet another level of resiliency.
It is impossible to know what each and every vendor is working on, especially since vendors want to keep their ideas to themselves until products are announced. However, if you are working on solutions such as those I have discussed above, or other solutions that will add to the resiliency and redundancy of public-safety communications, I hope you will make me aware of your efforts either under NDA (which I respect and honor) or if you are at a point where you are ready to talk about new products and services in a public forum. I would like to hear from you.
NextNav Continues to Partner
“This time the goal is to make use of NextNav’s pinnacle z-axis 9-1-1 along with the Qualcomm® Location Suite. The target this time is to be able to provide incoming 9-1-1 calls with exact location information including z-axis, which is very important, especially in urban areas with multi-story buildings. The NextNav z-axis system has been designed for urban deployment rather than suburban or rural deployments and this partnership should be welcomed by those in Public Safety Answering Points (PSACs) as well as by the public-safety community and citizens making calls to 9-1-1.”
Biden Nominates Rosenworcel Permanent FCC Chair
FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has finally been nominated to become the first woman Chair of the FCC. She has been very supportive of public safety and its communications needs and her track record for supporting public safety was outstanding as she worked in Congress during the run-up to FirstNet. Since she still needs to be confirmed by the Senate, a slight nudge to Senators from the public-safety community would hopefully encourage them to act on her nomination quickly (technically, her term ends at the end of December this year).
Technologies continue to be rolled out to assist the public-safety community in performing its tasks more effectively and safer. The first real advancement in many years was the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN, now FirstNet) that brought public-safety communications into the 21st century. FirstNet has provided the foundation for further advances that continue to finally take the communications systems available to public safety to the same level as commercial wireless users experience today.
However, FirstNet, while the catalyst for all that has followed, FirstNet still needs to be coupled with Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems that area moving to Internet Protocol (IP) connectivity to generate even more technology advances.
We have to be careful though; we have seen the results of over-engineering devices. For example, while handheld LMR radios have many more channels and other bells and whistles including a color screen in some cases, many of these radios are used today as they were many years ago. Only a few of the thousands of channels are needed for normal daily use, and many who are using these new handhelds are or can be confused by all the additional channels, groups, and more. Yet these additional capabilities are needed when public-safety personnel respond out of their own area of operation into areas using different radio bands and channels.
Someday soon (I hope), after we solve the PTT interoperability issues we face today as a result of the number of vendors providing broadband PTT and some being better than others at integrating FirstNet and LMR devices. Perhaps we will be able to rely on FirstNet for PTT interoperability on a nationwide basis and the functionality needed in LMR handsets can be reduced, thus making the radios easier to operate.
The goal all of us should be working toward is not to replace LMR with FirstNet but to establish FirstNet as the primary network for nationwide interoperability, thereby making LMR radios once again easier to use for those who need them as a communications tool but are sometimes intimidated by the number of features, buttons, and knobs on today’s LMR radios.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.