Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Timing

The FirstNet contract as awarded to AT&T, now FirstNet (Built with AT&T), is a twenty-five-year agreement. The initial five years represent the time in which FirstNet must meet its obligations per the RFP and can begin collecting against the $6.5 billion in FirstNet Authority funds as milestones are met. As mentioned previously in this column, FirstNet is ahead of schedule in meeting all or most of its five-year requirements. However, we don’t know if the stated number of users has been reached.

Each bidder submitted a target number for users on the network after five years and, to the best of my knowledge, this information has not been made public. Even so, I will hazard an educated guess that FirstNet is also ahead in meeting its number. All this is good news not only for FirstNet and The FirstNet Authority, more importantly, it is good news for the public safety community. While next year marks only the third year of the contract (signed March 30, 2017), FirstNet has said the network will be 80-percent complete at the end of 2020. This is few months shy of four years, leaving fifteen months more in the first sixty-month phase.

When FirstNet says it will have completed 80-percent of the network, it is referring to the 700-MHz Band 14 public safety network with more sites to come. In addition to Band 14, AT&T has made its LTE spectrum available to public safety with full pre-emption. Future plans include a nationwide 5G footprint on spectrum below 6 GHz, on 24-GHz and 28-GHz spectrum recently purchased at auction (831 licenses), and three or more GHz bands slated for future auction. This is important since public safety will have access to all the network’s 5-GHz spectrum as it is built out.

A Word of Caution

Some elected to Congress, appointed to the FCC as commissioners, and the Executive Branch may view all this “new-found” public safety spectrum as an invitation to move in and take back the T-band (470-512 MHz) used for Land Mobile Radio (LMR) services in eleven major metro areas and their suburbs. Two NPSTC reports on the T-band state that elected officials should know this spectrum is still needed as is all other spectrum currently allocated for public safety land mobile radio. It would be premature to even think about using this spectrum for other purposes. 

One of the most important modes of voice operation at the scene of an incident is unit-to-unit off-network voice communications. The LTE and 5G standards bodies have identified a replacement for off-network voice but it uses a system that cannot possibly match the performance of existing off-network communications today. Just ask FDNY how it operates on typical calls. Off-network voice is vital to its personnel as they perform their tasks and thousands of other departments use off-network voice every time they are sent out on a call. 

Back to the Future

Having said that, public safety needs to hang onto its LMR channels and embrace both Next Generation  9-1-1 (NG911) and FirstNet. With 5G, NG911, and FirstNet, public safety responses to incidents will be transformed. 5G provides some interesting new choices by way of better and faster imaging, more sensors, on-body personal monitors, better location awareness, and much more. As with any new technology, we will learn more and more about how 5G can work for us as we gain experience by using it. 

The difficulty in fully understanding 5G is one must understand that along with advancements, 5G will have limitations. Unfortunately, too much hype is always a precursor to a new technology rollout, including 5G, and this tends to raise expectations to unattainable levels. The good news is public safety has always been cautious in its assessments and makes certain any new tools are fully vetted and will help solve problems for personnel in the field.

When it comes to 5G deployments, we need to fully understand the differences between the capabilities, speed, and capacity of 5G in spectrum below 6 GHz compared to spectrum in the 20+ GHz range. We are told both will be faster than LTE and systems deployed in the 20+ GHz world will be a lot faster even though they will cover less area per small cell. LTE speeds vary depending on distance from a cell sector, amount of bandwidth, frequency, and whether LTE systems are combined to provide aggregated spectrum for more data speed and capacity. 

Those testing and installing 5G cells today are learning what is possible and perhaps identifying what may turn out to be stumbling blocks. I believe 5G will be a welcome addition to FirstNet but like any new technology, there will be some bumps in the road to buildout. For the short term, it will be prudent to watch, try 5G for some non-mission-critical tasks, and over time learn how LTE and 5G for FirstNet will be blended and made available to those in the field.

South Africa

According to an article in mybroadband, South Africa is experiencing a number of communications issues. Many appear to be the same FirstNet is in the process of resolving as best as possible. Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) is the primary digital communications technology being used by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and disaster management agencies. Tetra works well and has been widely used in Europe and many other areas. However, outlying agencies in South Africa still use analog FM and other forms of digital land mobile radio systems including Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) and ICOM’s Digital Advanced System (IDAS).

In 2011, the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) published a study by the African Centre for Disaster Studies, North West University, stating, “One of the main recommendations of the report was that the Information and Communications system must include the establishment of communications linked, which will enable the receipt, transmission and dissemination of information between those likely to be affected by the disaster risks as well as other role-players and stakeholders involved in disaster risk management.”

Portions of this report seem to be along the lines of the 9/11 Commission Report after that horrific incident. “During a simulated disaster management exercise where a plane crash was simulated near OR Tambo airport, several participating organisations could not communicate with each other. A more serious case was the fire at the Bank of Lisbon building in the Centre of Johannesburg where firemen from different organizations could not talk with each other and had to resort to the use of cellphones.

More recently, in Mozambique, the same problems hampered relieve operations in Beira where disparate systems required disaster relief organisation to resort to satellite phones with the end result that the satellite system was overloaded and rendered ineffective.

The rapid development of new technology is also not helpful. The United Kingdom, which has a well-established Tetra network, now faces a total overhaul because the system is no longer meeting the fast-changing requirements for an effective disaster communication network.”

The rest of the article discusses delays in the LTE public safety network in the UK and then provides detail maps how FirstNet came about. It ends with the following statement,“The US FirstNet appears to be the ideal option for South Africa, bringing together all involved in disaster response on one high-speed broadband network with built-in resilience and back-up. There is, of course, new technology to be considered. Should South Africa wait for 5G or 6G? Not a recommended scenario given that the need is now and LTE has achieved maturity.”

It appears from this article that FirstNet is gaining followers around the world and for good reason. The network is up and running and used extensively by U.S. public safety agencies. What the article does not delve into is off-network PTT, which is the missing link for LTE PTT. You may recall from previous news stories about the UK’s move to LTE from Tetra, the UK decided to remain on Tetra for off-network communications. We do not know if South Africa is planning to keep its Tetra and other networks in place, but that would be the best choice. 

The U.S. public safety community has no plans to abandon land mobile radio systems. Instead, it plans to integrate LMR more closely with FirstNet and provide bridges between the networks. I still see no reason for public safety to walk away from LMR in favor of a single FirstNet network—both networks are needed. And a NG911 comes online in more communities, we should see development of a common IP backbone tying all the networks and services together to better serve the public safety community. 

It is interesting to observe how other countries are approaching their various communications problems. Our friends in Australia, Canada, and other countries are experiencing different sets of issues, but the fact remains that the United States is out in front with our efforts to provide more unified communications to those within the public safety community who respond to assist us in both small and large incidents.

Winding Down

The Annual APCO Conference to be held in Baltimore this year is not that far off. It will run from Saturday, August 11 to Wednesday, August 14. I plan to attend as I have for most of the 35+ years I have been a member. I am not slated to present or serve as a panelist this year so I will have more time to take in many of the sessions. It is always a good event and I enjoy seeing others who have been involved for a long time and hopefully meeting some newcomers.

I will admit I have disagreed with the “turn” the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) seems to have chosen to take over the past few years. To me, APCO has always been about Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP), dispatch, and communications but several things have changed. First has been the turn away from radio communications to focus more heavily on the PSAP and dispatch aspects of public safety. The other trend is that some APCO chapters have merged with National Emergency Number Association (NENA) chapters and events I have attended here in Arizona are void of communications people. My APCO membership started with the California Radio Public-Safety Association (CRPA) Southern California Chapter and I am still a member. CPRA is made up of a mix of all the disciplines from PSAPs to dispatch to LMR to FirstNet. 

One of the sessions planned for this year is being hailed as, “New This Year: FirstNet: Transforming the Future of Emergency Communications.” For those who may have forgotten, FirstNet was first announced to the public safety community at an APCO conference in 2012. Apparently APCO has decided FirstNet is NEW this year! It’s tough to hold back my sarcasm. I have supported APCO for more than thirty years and have had the honor of being named a Senior Member. As such, I don’t appreciate public safety communications becoming last in importance. 

We need organizations such as APCO and NPSTC and we need to be able to attract young men and woman to the field of wireless communications. Anyone who attended an APCO event for the first time in the past few years would have wondered where the sessions on communications were. If they read the APCO journal, they would wonder where the articles and radio vendors went. I will continue to support APCO and hope as elections are held and sessions are planned for future events, we will see more communications-oriented people in management and more sessions on communications including the integration of NG911, LMR, and FirstNet.

Drones

Unfortunately, there have been more drone incidents for the record. During the 6,000-acre Clints Well, Ariz., fire in the Coconino National Forest, the air attack had to be halted when firefighters spotted a private drone, leaving firefighters without air support (I haven’t heard how long this lasted). 

I have also heard about drones being blown out of the air with fire hoses. I have no idea if a firefighter could be charged with a criminal act for this, but I would come down on the side of the firefighter! 

The FAA has promised to require all drones to have automatic remote IDs but says it will take another two years to put rules into place. I agree there should be a way to identify an owner, levy a heavy fine, and make a big deal out of it. Maybe that will get drone owners’ attention. One would hope people who fly drones for jollies would exercise at least a little common sense!

Until next week,

Andrew M. Seybold
©Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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