Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Timeline, Resource Pooling, T-Band Repeal, Z-Axis Location Services

FirstNet Timeline

It wasn’t until February 2012 that Congress attached the creation of FirstNet to a bill that was signed into law on February 22, 2012. It then took The FirstNet Authority board of directors and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), to which the FirstNet organization is “attached,” more than a few years to get a handle on what it needed to do and how to go about getting it done. The process called for both a private and a public element, and it became one of the largest and most successful public/private partnerships created to date.

Building a FirstNet organization, hiring staff, designing the system, and gathering input from the public-safety community took five more years after which The FirstNet Authority awarded the contract for network build-out and operation to AT&T Wireless. For a while, it appeared every time FirstNet took a few steps forward, something would delay its progress. Even the contract award was delayed while one bidder took FirstNet to court with claims it was not treated fairly. 

The contract with AT&T is for twenty-five years with the first five years (sixty months) being the network construction timeframe. The contract specifies milestones for many of the tasks to be completed before the network can be operational. As tasks are completed on time, AT&T receives a pre-determined progress payment from proceeds of FCC spectrum auctions—no funding for the network comes from the Federal Treasury. On the other hand, AT&T must pay fines for missing waypoints. Some harsher penalties authorize The Authority to take over an activity if it is not completed in the time allotted.   

So far, AT&T has met every milestone and most have been completed ahead of the allotted time, in some cases by many months. It appears FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will have completed all tasks by March 30, 2022 with time to spare, which brings us to the next part of the contract that kicks in once all build tasks are completed. FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will then have twenty years to operate and maintain the network and continue network build-out. 

AT&T remits a portion of the funds it receives in FirstNet user fees to The Authority, which is to remain self-funding, and the majority of the money it takes in is to be reinvested in the public-safety community. 

One more time…I have never seen a broadband network that is “finished.” There are always new sites coming online, inbuilding additions, and enhancements to the network to keep it viable. As communities experience population growth, the network must expand in order to provide as uniform a level of service as is possible. Adding 5G to the FirstNet network will cost money and require expansion of cell sites. As you probably know by now, 5G is not a single technology with whiz-bang speeds. Depending on the radio spectrum used for 5G builds, there are huge differences in cell-site coverage, data speeds, and capacity. The perception is that anywhere there is 5G, data rates will be in the gigabyte range, but this is not true. Today’s low band (600 MHz) 5G is faster than LTE, but not by much, and coverage per cell site is on a par with LTE cell sites in the 700-MHz band. 

Next is 5G on “mid-band spectrum” in the 2-GHz to 5-GHz or so bands. These frequencies will provide faster speeds and more capacity, again depending on how much spectrum is allocated to 5G systems. “Blow-your-socks-off” speeds will be found in 5G systems in the millimeter-wave bands. Increased speeds at 24 GHz and higher are possible because there is a huge amount of spectrum available in those bands which, until 5G, were not considered suitable for wireless broadband services. Still, coverage per cell site will be measured in football fields, not miles. Millimeter-wave 5G systems will require many new small cells, closer together. It is probable that everywhere there is a streetlight, at some point there will be a small 5G cell.

I am spending time on 5G differences for a specific reason. First, really-fast 5G will be limited mostly to urban areas where this cell density is possible. In metro and suburban areas, we are more likely to see mid-band, and 5G in rural America will be mostly low band. That is not to say there won’t be any superfast 5G in outlying areas. However, where it is deployed it will be spotty and built, for example, in the confines of a village and not in areas beyond clusters of houses and businesses. 

Resource Pooling

Public safety will need to work with The FirstNet Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) or other 5G providers. Early on, we were looking at how we could economically build the FirstNet network on a nationwide scale. Some ideas recommended not relying on typical tower companies and leasing space like other broadband networks, but to include existing federal and local buildings and towers such as U.S. Postal Service facilities. Another idea was to target schools and hospitals where broadband services could be extended to serve the community as well as first responders. 

One major U.S. city planned to use new towers at all its fire stations. It turned out that this was not a good idea—not because it wasn’t practical but because those who thought of this did not understand what tower and cellular companies have known for years: You cannot simply decree that towers will be built. You have to educate neighborhoods surrounding the tower location so they understand if it is a joint effort with commercial providers, this new tower or top-of-building antenna array will provide better broadband services for the entire community as well as first responders.

There have been some really good “wins” where a county, for example, planned to build out a tower for better public-safety and city-services communications and partnered with one or more commercial operator. A volunteer fire department outside Philadelphia once planned a new radio tower with, I think, two commercial tenants. The fire department had the very top of the tower and commercial operators each had sections. The fire department benefited with a monthly income and virtually free use of the tower. Some cities and towns do not permit co-mingling private and commercial users on one tower. Even so, an area in the east built out a series of towers for a new Land Mobile Radio (LMR) system and co-located commercial companies or, in some cases, built towers for shared use. 

The idea of blending private and public efforts makes sense as we work to increase public-safety and rural broadband coverage. If public and private organizations can share some resources and pool others, more progress will be made sooner. Years ago, I suggested that a mid-sized community encourage tower companies to build on city property and the city would earn rent. In some cases, I suggested the tower owner should be required to install a larger generator that would power both the city building and the tower. 

As I have been encouraging pooling resources to extend broadband and LMR systems to where they are needed, I have found that a single agency or company often cannot justify the expense. However, expenses could be shared and resources could be pooled if these entities worked together. Last time I checked, rural power co-ops provide power to some portion of forty-seven states. They have rights of way, infrastructure, trucks, and personnel. They could use broadband for their power control and perhaps to convert areas to automatic electric meters while partnering with others with similar needs. 

Common goals include providing broadband for first responders, hospitals, schools, homes, and businesses. Sharing costs and assets works, but not if everyone who wants and needs broadband services has to rely exclusively on their own organization or on one of the far too many federal agencies that offer loans or grants to build out broadband (but not maintain and expand it as the community grows). 

Several bills designed to create a single agency to coordinate and oversee available funding and resources have been introduced in Congress. This agency, made up of experts in project management, broadband, fiber, and wireless services, would bring in small organizations such as the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) and others that have not waited for others to act and have been providing broadband to niche markets that could be easily cultivated.

The Goal

The partnership between FirstNet, first responders, and AT&T has proven private/public partnerships work. We have become acutely aware that students who do not have access to broadband cannot attend school remotely. We have seen expansion of public-safety broadband communications but more is needed. And we are moving toward 5G services, which means different levels of service for different areas. Perhaps it is time to pause and consider combining multiple resources to extend broadband faster and more economically. For example, it would make sense to run fiber to a school, then feed wireless broadband from the school to the community, and enable broadband communications to school buses for students who ride busses. 

By combining resources, broadband can serve state and local offices and buildings, first responders, and emergency medical personnel at local clinics and hospitals and deliver the broadband farmers want and need not only in the farmhouse but in the fields where it can be used to automate processes. We can provide broadband services to non-profits, volunteer fire departments, and others for little or no charge. In short, broadband access will benefit everyone. When we figure out how multiple providers, businesses, schools, organizations, and first responders can pool their resources, they won’t have to worry about anything except making sure everyone has equal access. 

People should have broadband access and pay for if they are able, regardless of where they are and what they do in the United States. Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) is coming to public safety and it is about broadband voice, text, data, pictures, and video being sent to a dispatch center, vetted, and forwarded to responders in the field. Rural communities should not be penalized because they cannot afford the same services as those in a city. Ma Bell was required to run phone lines to farms and rural areas, and power companies including the TVA were required to provide power to citizens. Why should access to broadband be any different? It should not be different, but the only way to make broadband available to all is to pool resources and funds, and work together to eliminate the digital divide, a problem that as hampered citizens, businesses, emergency-response personnel, and others far too long. 

We have a model that works: The FirstNet Authority, FirstNet (Built with AT&T), and the public-safety community. Perhaps this model should be replicated for the rest of us or used as a “starter kit” to show the way forward. 

Unfinished Congressional Action

Until the new Congress is sworn in on January 3, 2021, current members of Congress will be meeting to address pending issues including funding the government, providing stimulus funds for people who are still out of work and running out of resources and, on my wish list, for Congress to finally repeal the T-Band giveback bill. The bill introduced in the House was passed a while ago, but the Senate, or perhaps a single senator, appears to be holding up the process in the Senate. The 2020 election is over but some in Congress will be running for re-election in 2022 with others running again in 2024. Since the current administration is pro law enforcement and public safety, it would make sense for the current Congress to finally pass the bill to keep eleven major metropolitan areas from losing their primary communications systems. 

I have to believe anyone in Congress facing an election in the next two years would benefit from being able to say they supported our public-safety community by repealing the T-Band (470-512 MHz) giveback. The T-Band is used by many public-safety agencies and some businesses in eleven of the most populated metro areas in the United States. The spectrum giveback was mandated in the law that created FirstNet and since then, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) has published two detailed reports concerning the costs of relocating these agencies to another portion of spectrum, that there is no other spectrum available, and that even if the FCC auctions the spectrum, it will not raise enough money to cover relocation costs.

The major public-safety organizations, the IAFC, IACP, APCO, and others, have been pressing Congress to repeal the T-Band, the GAO has recommended leaving public safety in this band, and even the FCC Chairman has asked Congress on several occasions to repeal the T-Band giveback. Perhaps a nudge to your senator during this last session of the current Congress would be appropriate. This is unfinished business that could affect the safety of millions of people living in these eleven metropolitan areas, and it could endanger the lives of our first responders if they lose this major form of their radio communications. 

Z-Axis Location

NextNav is one of the companies working on z-axis height-location determination. The FCC recently passed rules requiring location assistance not only in the x and y axes, but also the z-axis, referred to as 3D location services. Current rules call for height-location z-axis data within three meters 94-percent of the time. After working on its solution for many years, NextNav has announced the roll-out of its service in fifty major U.S. markets with an eye on exceeding current FCC requirements by the end of March 2021. 

The NextNav system uses beacons located in and around major metro areas. Handsets that work with these beacons require the addition of a new receiver chip. In July 2020, Sonim Technologies announced a partnership with NextNav to deliver devices that will work with the NextNav system. Now that the system will be up and operational in at least fifty major markets, it will be interesting to see how many public-safety and end-user device vendors will embed the new chip in their phones and tablets. 

The potential market for location services is not limited to sourcing 9-1-1 inbound calls or locating first responders inside buildings. There are also implications for commercial broadband services. It is expected that NextNav will be one of several solutions that will work in concert to meet and exceed FCC requirements. It should be noted that NextNav is careful to refer to its solution as being a metropolitan solution and not designed for or being marketed to solve z-axis location issues in suburban and rural environments. 

Until next week…

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

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