Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet Tribal Successes, Interoperable PTT and Data, AT&T and FirstNet Authority Move Forward

The US Department of the Interior recently conducted a series of webinars to highlight advances within the various Tribal communities. I was most interested in the FirstNet portion of the webinar which was in a panel format. Hosted by FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and the FirstNet Authority, this segment was entitled, “FirstNet—Transforming First Responder Communications and Extending Connectivity in Tribal Communities.” 

This presentation was well organized and speakers from several Tribes took turns describing their Tribal lands, difficulties in providing public-safety communications, and the difference FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has made to all their nations. 

They discussed how FirstNet has helped them in many areas of their public-safety communications by building out Band 14 on Tribal lands and, especially during covid outbreaks. The list of speakers was impressive:

  • Chief Chris Saunsoci, Police Chief, Yankton Sioux Tribe
  • Jim Pearson, Emergency Manager, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Emergency Management
  • Christopher Becenti, Executive Director, Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission 
  • Angel Benally, Tribal Affairs Specialist, Strategy & Policy, FirstNet Program at AT&T
  • Adam Geisler, National Tribal Liaison, FirstNet Authority (panel moderator)

FirstNet has supported these Tribal nations and others with the build-out of FirstNet as required in the contract issued to AT&T by the FirstNet Authority. Further, in many cases, FirstNet has gone above and beyond its contract obligations by providing deployables in areas where not even Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems had been available. 

The overall consensus was that FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has made significant improvements in broadband coverage for each Tribe, and that FirstNet is committed to working with Tribal leaders to provide continued access to the FirstNet public-safety broadband network. 

Listening to this webinar, it is clear that FirstNet is working in concert with Tribal leaders to maximize their public-safety broadband coverage and to provide deployable cell sites when and where they are needed. 

We understand that FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has contractual obligations to the FirstNet Authority for the public-safety nationwide broadband network to cover metro, suburban, rural, and Tribal areas. And we often hear from AT&T that it is ahead of its five-year build-out commitment. In fact, its latest report stated it had completed 95-percent of its first five-year contractual build obligations. However, we don’t hear much about FirstNet’s activities in rural America and its involvement in building out coverage in Tribal lands. 

It speaks well for both FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and the FirstNet Authority that the network build-out obligations included in the Congressional bill that created FirstNet and in the FirstNet Authority’s requirements as stated in its request for quotes when it was seeking a private partner to build out the network are being fulfilled in a timely manner. 

I am hopeful we will be hearing more about both rural America and Tribal lands build-outs. Even though they are as important to public safety as the rest of the nation, both often end up on the short end of the stick. 

It is evident that AT&T continues to take the build-out requirements seriously and it continues to go beyond contractual requirements. For example, AT&T has ensured the public-safety community that it will continue to have access to all of AT&T’s 5G build-out and that its 5G will include the priority and preemption FirstNet users have come to rely on when using public-safety Band 14 and AT&T LTE spectrum.

Push-To-Talk Interoperability Comments

In last week’s Advocate, I encouraged local, statewide, and federal public-safety agencies to work with approved FirstNet Push-To-Talk (PTT) vendors to build push-to-talk interoperability from the ground up.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been working with a small company to provide the 3GPP-approved version of Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT) with interoperability capabilities. It is not clear to me whether this interoperability applies only to broadband-to-LMR or if it also includes broadband-to-broadband.

At IWCE 2021 at the end of September, Motorola presented a series of demonstrations using its cloud-based critical-communications infrastructure and its PTT offering, or at least one of its offerings. It appears Motorola will end up with three distinct PTT offerings. The first is Wave, an over-the- top product Motorola acquired some years ago, and the next, of course, is the Kodiak Enhanced Push-To-Talk (EPPT) solution Motorola ended up with after buying Kodiak. Finally, we are waiting for Motorola to talk about and formally announce its promised version of 3GPP-standard PTT.

To date, it is not clear from anything I have read or can find on the Internet that any of the PTT clients Motorola touts as being 3GPP-compliant support anything other than Android applications. And other vendors are also announcing 3GPP-compliant PTT services. However, since the 3GPP standard requires PTT to be hosted and embedded within a broadband network, it is unclear if it will work between broadband networks and if the 3GPP Inner Networking Function (IWF) will support and provide reasonable and economic ways to interface to LMR push-to-talk.

I have received more than the usual number of responses to my article suggesting that agencies move forward with push-to-talk on their own. It is interesting to me, however, that I did not receive a single negative response or negative comment. All of the comments were positive.

The issue remains that we have a great nationwide broadband network but we have not been able to figure out a way to provide fully interoperable push-to-talk across FirstNet or to interface with LMR push-to-talk systems. 

I realize I spend a lot of time on this topic, but this is because I believe nationwide push-to-talk interoperability is the most important next thing we need to provide to the public-safety community. It appears that it is only some FirstNet-approved push-to-talk vendors that feel as I do and are dedicated to providing full levels of interoperability. I strongly disagree with those who continue to tell me that it will all come together once the 3GPP standard includes all the capabilities public safety requires. Yet I keep waiting for signs that progress is being made in that direction. 

There does not seem to be a focus on solving this problem within either the FirstNet Authority or FirstNet (Built with AT&T). It is extremely frustrating to understand that the interoperability issue could have been resolved more than a year ago and we could now be moving on to address interoperability among and between Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems. Data, video, and images will increasingly be sent over the FirstNet network, especially as Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) is rolled out.

Data Interoperability

This brings me to the issue of data compatibility across FirstNet and broadband networks. A number of weeks ago, I wrote about what appears to be a valid and workable solution to providing full data interoperability across FirstNet. This week, I understand from my contacts that a report that details how this interoperability can and will work is close to being released in its final form. Then I will, of course, review and report on it in detail. In the meantime, if there are other solutions for data interoperability, I would love to hear about them and learn how they could help the public-safety community. 

The Five-Year Deadline

I believe two things will happen when the five-year build-out contractual obligation deadline closes in on FirstNet (Built with AT&T). The first is that even though it will have met all its obligations, AT&T will continue to work with the FirstNet Authority to enhance network capabilities and coverage (including inbuilding). Further, as AT&T has stated, it will continue to make its LTE and 5G networks available to public safety with priority and pre-emption. 

Next is something I believe will require coordination between application vendors, FirstNet, and the public-safety community. Everything that flows over the FirstNet smart network needs to be able to be viewed by any entity that has permission to view the information and to use it as needed. 

We all need to keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to serve the public-safety community in the best way possible. To do this, we need the FirstNet broadband network, land-mobile radio networks, next-generation 9-1-1, and data-set compatibility to move data across the proper networks to the intended recipients in a timely manner.

Winding Down

As October 2021 draws to a close and we approach the end of the year and the holiday seasons, work remains to be done to support public safety. Obviously, covid has presented many challenges over the last eighteen months or so but, hopefully, spread of this virus will soon be under control.

Even so, there is much to be appreciative of when looking back at 2020 and 2021. FirstNet continues to attract more agencies and users and both are finding it easier to communicate with others over the FirstNet network and with the availability of LMR interfaces. And we have more deployables available within the FirstNet network than ever before with more on the way.

I am hopeful that the supply chain shortages that are impacting so many businesses and people will not impede our progress in providing world-class public-safety communications to first responders in the field. I was disappointed to see that there was a dearth of new and inventive products being shown at IWCE 2021, but I am hopeful vendors that serve this industry will continue to refine their existing products and build more and different products.

There is a lot of work ahead for all of us involved in providing what public safety needs. It is clear that public safety has come together and is pushing hard to achieve what it wants and to make sure it is not, once again, left behind technology advances that are rolled out to commercial users.

Until next week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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