Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet—Stats and Contract Updates, Upgrade to 5G

Early in 2020 as we were learning about the pandemic and decisions were being made to work from home and for students to study from home, I wrote an Advocate regarding the Internet and both wired and wireless networks becoming stressed. I was concerned that our infrastructure would not be able to handle the new demands placed upon it. While we did see some slowing of network speeds, I believe most if not all network providers worked diligently to maintain their networks and ensure they would not become overloaded under the new usage models.

In discussions with others, we wondered if more stress on wireless networks and articles about potential network slowdowns in many publications might motivate public-safety departments considering joining FirstNet (Built with AT&T) to move more quickly. Knowing that FirstNet is not only a nationwide broadband network providing priority access to the commercial LTE bands, it is the only wireless broadband network that has 20 MHz of prime 700-MHz spectrum to be used exclusively by public safety.

Even if AT&T commercial traffic on the LTE network begins to swamp the network and slow data speeds, FirstNet users will have full pre-emption and priority access and will still be able to access all of the AT&T LTE spectrum. Further, if things become really dicey, the 20 MHz of public-safety spectrum deployed and managed by FirstNet (Built with AT&T) provides wireless connectivity for public safety in the event of severe capacity issues on the rest of the LTE network segments operated by AT&T. I have not seen any statistics that show whether network capacity and slowdowns had an impact on the uptake of FirstNet by more agencies. However, as of AT&T’s latest announcement (Urgent Communications July 24, 2020), FirstNet had 1.5 million connections (users) from 13,000 agencies. 

Per AT&T, this is a doubling of users and agencies year over year. Perhaps the pandemic did drive some agencies to join FirstNet sooner than they might have. The 13,000 agencies represent a 30-percent growth in the number of agencies since the end of 2019. The article goes on to say that AT&T has completed more than 80-percent of its contractual build-out obligations and other articles say it is more than one year ahead of the five-year build-out deadline. AT&T has also stated that as it rolls out Band 14 (public safety’s 20 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum), it is also deploying 5G-ready equipment that leverages 20-MHz swaths of its spectrum holdings in the Wireless Communications Service (WCS) 2.3 GHz and Advanced Wireless Service (AWS-3) spectrum while updating FirstNet to 5G.

FirstNet Upgrade to 5G

The FirstNet Authority recently allocated some of the $218 million it will be re-investing in FirstNet to upgrade the existing FirstNet core (brains) to handle 5G. AT&T’s senior vice president of Wireless Technology, Iqal Elbaz, who participated on a FierceWireless 5G Blitz Week panel, said once the core is upgraded, “We are already close to one year ahead of schedule.” He added that every time AT&T sends someone to climb a macro tower for FirstNet, that person can also implement upgrades to the LTE network for things such as 256 QAM, 4×4 MIMO, and carrier aggregation, and upgrade hardware to 5G New Radio. Carrier aggregation technology enables wireless operators to combine contiguous and non-contiguous spectrum blocks as well as spectrum blocks from other bands in order to increase data speeds to the end user.

More than a year ago, AT&T announced that FirstNet users would also have access to its 5G networks as they are deployed. It appears AT&T is making a lot of progress on the low-band version of 5G and it is time to begin discussing the migration of FirstNet users to 5G. This brings me to some questions I am sure have been answered even though I have not seen any published explanations.

First, since public-safety Band 14 was designated by both the 3GPP standards body and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as capable of running much higher power on mobile and handheld units (1.25 watts as opposed to 0.25 watts) and High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) has been built and certified by FirstNet, how will this high-power band plan be used in conjunction with the migration of FirstNet to 5G? As more and more coverage tests using HPUE have been run, it is clear that HPUE on LTE can increase coverage of a cell site by about 80-percent. This has significant implications for improved in-building coverage in metro areas and achieving better coverage using fewer sites in rural areas. The real question is when preparing for this migration perhaps sometime next year, how will FirstNet and The FirstNet Authority deliver the huge benefits of high-power devices to the public-safety community?  

I am concerned with the Push-To-Talk (PTT) aspects of FirstNet and FirstNet-and-LMR PTT integration, and on the LTE side there are seven FirstNet-approved PTT vendors. One meets the 3GPP Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPPT) standards and there are rumors of another MCPTT vendor whose technology is under consideration for FirstNet. Therefore, the next question is if we will simply continue with multiple PTT providers on LTE and wait for 5G before incorporating a requirement for full PTT interoperability over the FirstNet network. I hope not. The PTT issues need to be resolved before moving to 5G so LTE PTT can be migrated to 5G FirstNet PTT as agencies are migrated. 

While the article quoted above says FirstNet will be migrated to 5G, I have to wonder if LTE and 5G devices will be able to co-exist on FirstNet for a number of years (pick a number). Since all the devices I have seen released for 5G so far are both LTE and 5G-capable, I would assume this is a correct assumption but as we all know, assuming is not always wise! The issue of devices will be interesting to follow. Today we have a slew of FirstNet-approved handheld, tablet, notebook, vehicular, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Again, I have not seen any verbiage to support what I think is logical, which is for a period of time both networks will be capable of working together, and traffic on LTE and 5G will be identical until it is time to turn off the LTE FirstNet network and fully move over to 5G. By that time, we will also have to start looking at how 6G will impact FirstNet and the commercial wireless networks. 

Technology does not stand still. One point raised prior to FirstNet was that many public-safety agencies were still using equipment that was fifteen or twenty years old. I can attest to that since when I worked at Motorola, we sold a lot of VHF, UHF, and T-Band radios into LA County Fire and Sheriff including top-of-the-line Micor radios and a mixture of portable radios. These were put into service in the late 1970s and early 1980s and many were not retired until 2013 when the FCC required VHF and UHF spectrum users to narrowband their radios. This was true in many other areas of the United States as well. Many agencies that purchased radios closer to the narrow-banding deadline bought units that were capable of being narrow-banded without much hassle, but many of the older radios could not meet the narrow-banding requirement. (LMR radios typically stay in service much longer than cellular devices.) 

FirstNet Devices

A major factor in how long equipment remains in service in the public-safety community is whether the devices are intended for an LMR system or FirstNet. FirstNet came to public safety from the commercial broadband world where many who had smartphones and other devices were accustomed to trading them in every time a new iPhone, Samsung, or other Android phone was released. FirstNet devices are far less expensive than most of today’s LMR devices and hardened devices can last a long time in the harsh public-safety environment. However, I wonder how many retrofits public-safety agencies will have to make over the next five or so years. 

FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and The FirstNet Authority must have puzzled out the answers to these questions but as more is being said about the migration of FirstNet to 5G, planners within governments and agencies using FirstNet or in the process of signing up will want to be kept abreast of device upgrade cycles, which to make “when you are ready,” and any “you must upgrade by such and such a date.”

New FirstNet Tools

The EMS world has come a long way since I had the privilege of putting the Biophone (“orange box”) into the hands of some of the first certified paramedics in the United States. Our Biophone provided three-lead EKG and voice using EMS UHF channels. The radio was full duplex and the EKG was solid either over the air or via home phones. Today we are seeing twelve-lead EKGs and many other forms of data transmission from paramedics to hospitals as well as video feeds in both directions. 

The Allerio Mobile Hub is one of the newest products approved by FirstNet (Built with AT&T). This device is much more than a vehicular modem product. The Allerio Mobile Hub is capable of connecting via FirstNet and can accept multiple SIMs to provide coverage when there are gaps. It works on the FirstNet network and the FirstNet core with secure data transmission (voice, data, photos, videos) and includes end-to-end encryption. It differs from most vehicular modems with full twelve-lead EKG capabilities, it can be used onsite in the field and in hospitals, and it provides field personnel with an advanced EMS communications tool that can transmit injury/illness images. It has full-duplex standard two-way voice communications and two-way video for telemedicine calls, and it easily connects via Bluetooth and WiFi. 

This unit is portable, unlike most vehicular modems, and it has a docking station for when it is in an EMS rig. It supports GPS location and according to its specifications, it can transmit real-time ETAs, it has a camera for patient video if needed by the hospital, and it supports additional medical scanners. This device is light-years ahead of what we did in the Rescue 51 days of “Emergency.” En route to the medical facility, patients’ vitals, history, and other data collected during an incident are sent to emergency room staff so they can make preparations and be ready to receive patients upon their arrival. As this device finds its way into the field, it will be interesting to learn of use cases that go beyond what Allerio forsees. Paramedics in the field have a tendency to learn how to use a new device and then push it beyond what it is intended to do.

Z-Axis Location 

I recently wrote about NextNav, the Z-axis (vertical height) company that can pinpoint a location to less than the three meters (ten feet) currently required by the FCC. Now we need devices to include the NextNav chip so they can receive the NextNav beacons being deployed in major metro areas. 

And you probably remember that one of the first ruggedized smartphones to be FirstNet-approved were from Sonim. These smartphones are designed to provide the highest level of reliability in the harsh public-safety environment. 

In early July, NextNav and Sonim Technologies announced a new partnership to make NextNav’s Z-axis technology available to first responders and 9-1-1 emergency services. The announcement quoted Ganesh Pattabiraman, CEO of NextNav, as saying, “Z-axis is a game changer for first responders,” and “Studies show that having precise ‘Z’ information reduces search times in multi-story structures by over 80%. Combined with the fact that 84% of the U.S. population lives in cities, this will have a tremendous impact on public safety. Our partnership with Sonim means faster response times and increased situational awareness that will save lives. This is the first step toward an ecosystem of 3D geolocation that is long overdue.”

The press release does not say this a Sonim/NextNav relationship for first responders. Since the NextNav beacon system is separate from any specific broadband network, any device containing the NextNav chip can be used to provide Z-axis location. Each network operator will be required to enter into an agreement with NextNav to use its Z-axis location technology. Now that Sonim has committed to embedding this technology in its devices, it will be interesting to see which networks embrace this location system and which vendors join Sonim and include the NextNav chip in their devices. I will be watching to see how this develops.

Winding Down

With only one day left in the APCO Election for Officers, I want to chime in. If you have not yet voted, as a commercial member I am supporting Mark Pallans for second vice president. Commercial members support APCO but cannot vote to help shape its path forward. You might remember that I have been critical of APCO over the past few years for the direction it seems to be heading. I have no problem with APCO supporting 9-1-1 professionals; I have been pushing to have their status upgraded. What I disagree with is that APCO appears to have forgotten its roots. 

APCO used to be about ALL levels of communications from incoming calls, to dispatches, to communications in the field. I have been told membership has grown since it has focused on the front end of public-safety communications and that is a good thing. However, many of us still think APCO should continue to support ALL aspects of public-safety communications. I served on the APCO Broadband Committee as vice-chair under the leadership of Bill Schrier who is now with The FirstNet Authority. Committee meetings were well attended during every conference call and the few in-person meetings that were held and we turned out a lot of important work product. I believe we helped shape some of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) reports that impacted how FirstNet viewed issues that needed solutions, and we took part in many sessions around the United States to explain FirstNet and what it would mean to public safety. That committee is no more and that is why I am throwing in my two-cents. Mark Pallans earned his stripes on the other side of dispatch and it would be great to see even one executive position filled by someone with field experience who understands communications systems beyond incoming and dispatch functions to what it takes to move dispatches and other communications to and from the field. 

Covid-19, Hurricanes, Wildfires, and More, Oh My!

If you follow Twitter and other social media, you cannot have missed all the comments about 2020 and what else can be thrown at us. I think about these tweets whenever I research “before FirstNet” times. What if all that is happening this year in the United States and elsewhere happened pre-FirstNet? Where would we be and how much would we be able to handle? Remember Katrina? What a communications nightmare that was! Most LMR systems were down, generators failed, antennas and towers were blown away, and there was no way to charge batteries for the handheld radios. 

Help started pouring in, but not one agency or organization was capable of coordinating and communicating with everyone trying to save lives and fighting the flooding, fires, and other emergencies. How many times did we see helicopters fly past rooftops that held stranded people because their plight had been reported to an agency that was not able to communicate with the Air National Guard, Coast Guard, and others. 

Where would we be today with all we are experiencing if we did not have FirstNet? As I write this, portions of Texas, which has been hit heavily by COVID-19, are being pummeled by the first named hurricane of the season (Hanna) and Hawaii is waiting to see what happens later this week. Meanwhile, Arizona and California are already fighting wildfires. Some are severe and some require evacuation of residents. Citizens will be heading to shelters where may not be possible to keep a six-foot separation and they may not be able to wear masks. How do we deal with a nationwide pandemic along with regional weather and fire-related incidents?

The answer is that we have both LMR and FirstNet. LMR has several levels of “graceful degradation” down to one-to-one and one-to-many off-network communications. LMR can be used to move emergency communications into an area but only on LMR channels. FirstNet has upgraded cell sites and a large number of deployables that can be delivered via roads and skies. Resources can be moved into areas with the assurance they will be able to communicate with devices in the area using FirstNet and, in many cases, devices will be provided to agencies during an incident if they do not already have them.

We fought long and hard to be able to provide nationwide coverage to all public-safety agencies and the fact that some agencies are not yet ready to engage with FirstNet indicates we have not fully met our goals. The more that is thrown at us, the more public-safety agencies will come to understand that nationwide communications and coordination is the most important aspect of public-safety communications. 

Until August…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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